It seems like it’s almost common knowledge that meditation is a beneficial and worthwhile practice. Most people, if pressed, will agree that their lives could be enhanced by a regular meditation practice. Beyond meditation’s ability to help people to calm down and focus, it can assist people in getting at the heart of deep seated emotional issues.
While this might seem like a luxury, or something to be considered in your spare time, working through emotional issues can be the key to unlocking motivation or otherwise overcoming barriers to success. If meditation holds the keys to long term success and behavior modification, why isn’t it more popular.
While most people acknowledge the benefits of meditation, few people engage in a regular meditative practice. Most people can count on the fingers the amount of people they know who seriously meditate on a regular basis. The main reason for this is that meditation is seen as an inconvenient and ill defined practice.
When most people sit down to meditate, they are unsure about what they should be feeling and whether or not they will know if they are practicing correctly. Most people have no idea when and if they will experience the benefits of meditation. Beyond some abstract sense of guilt for not having meditated, most people have little intrinsic motivation driving them to keep up with some type of meditative practice.
EEG and other types of electronic feedback clear up most of the issues meditative practices present. With EEG feedback devices, people can gain immediate feedback about the functioning of their brain during meditation. This is important as the ability to maintain different brain wave patterns is one of the chief aims of meditation.
Regularly meditating allows a person to permanently alter their brain waves. By using an EEG feedback device someone practicing meditation is provided with a clear indication of the various mental states they are moving through and how long they are able to maintain those various states.
This provides people with a much needed sense of accomplishment on the path toward permanent changes is the structure and function of the brain. After all, the neuroplasticity that underlies long term changes in the brain can take months or years of dedicated meditation. Most people will quit long before those changes take place without some sort of intermediate feedback. EEG devices provide just this type of intermediate feedback.
Why Is EEG Such An Important Biomarker?
EEG or Electroencephalography is an important biomarker as it is one of the only non-invasive ways to monitor brain function. EEG allows us to monitor the voltage fluctuations resulting from ionic current within the neurons of the brain. Besides gaining a better understanding of generalized brain activity, EEG allows us to monitor what state our brain is and and hat type of waves it is emitting. The various levels of brain activity are categorized into a number of wavelengths that are put into the following categories:
- Delta Waves – (0.1 – 3.9 Hz) — When in a deep, dreamless sleep. Newborns sleep in this stage, adults less so.
- Theta Waves – (4 – 7.9 Hz) — Dreaming sleep (REM), this is the goal for meditation or self-hypnosis.
- Alpha Waves – (8 – 13.9 Hz) — Relaxed, daydreaming and watching TV.
- Beta Waves – (14 – 30 Hz) — The awake state. Engaged in activities and conversation.
- Gamma Waves – (31 Hz+) — Hyper alert, good for insights and higher learning.
The different types of brain waves correspond to different mental states.
Theta waves correspond to a highly focused mental state. These brain waves generally occur in experienced meditation practitioners. These waves correspond to a sate of self-monitoring the brain undergoes during meditation. These waves are indicative of activation of the pre-frontal cortex.
“These types of waves likely originate from a relaxed attention that monitors our inner experiences. Here lies a significant difference between meditation and relaxing without any specific technique,” emphasizes Lagopoulos. –ScienceDaily
Alpha waves represent a relaxed and alert mental state. When these waves are present the mind has stopped it’s the goal oriented processing that occurs when you are actively trying to solve a problem. However, there are still thoughts being processed on a subconscious level. Researchers describe this process as follows:
“Neuroimaging studies by Malia F. Mason and co-workers at Dartmouth College NH suggest that the normal resting state of the brain is a silent current of thoughts, images and memories that is not induced by sensory input or intentional reasoning, but emerges spontaneously from within.” – ScienceDaily
Beta waves are present when you are working on a goal oriented task such as solving a problem or trying to plan an event or a series of events. This is the state that the brain is in during most of your waking hours. This is also the state that is experienced nearly continuously in people who suffer from constant rumination.
“Beta waves occur when the brain is working on goal-oriented tasks, such as planning a date or reflecting actively over a particular issue. EEG showed few beta waves during meditation and resting.” –ScienceDaily
Delta waves are the type of waves that dominate the brain during sleep. These types of waves are nearly completely absent during meditation. The main take away for researchers is that meditation is not the same as sleep.
EEG waves reveal important information about the state of the brain and the relative success or failure of a session of meditation. In the past a practitioner would have to rely on post session reflection to gauge whether or not a session was productive and what might be improved about the practice.
Thanks to some of the new consumer monitors, nearly anyone can gather and record the feedback from their sessions to determine how much time they spent in any of the various brain states and whether or not they have improved over time. This type of feedback is invaluable for someone who is potentially spending thousands of hours practicing.
Another reason that EEG is such an important measure is that it is on of the only direct measures of brain function. Even other important biomarkers such as Heart Rate Variability can only measure brain function indirectly.
Using EEG you can get an idea of exactly how different thoughts and sources of stimulation affect the brains functioning.
How Is EEG Used With Meditation?
EEG can be used at home or in the research lab to measure the effects of meditation on the brain. What’s even more exciting about EEG measuring devices is that they can give users an idea of how meditation might be affecting their brain even when they are not meditating.
In addition to looking at brain wave patters during meditation, users can measure their baseline brain wave patters to see changes in the activity of the brain. This is especially important in understanding how meditation can have far reaching effects in someones life.
After all, the purpose of meditation is not to see how long you can sit quietly in the corner of a room. Instead, it is to affect a change on your day to day behavior and situational processing. According to Katharine Paddock PhD and resident author at MNT Knowlesge Center the change in brain activity seen in meditation practitioners can be described as follows:
“A new brain imaging study led by researchers at Yale University shows how people who regularly practise meditation are able to switch off areas of the brain linked to daydreaming, anxiety, schizophrenia and other psychiatric disorders. The brains of experienced meditators appear to show less activity in an area known as the “default mode network”, which is linked to largely self-centred thinking. The researchers suggest through monitoring and suppressing or “tuning out” the “me” thoughts, meditators develop a new default mode, which is more present-centred.”
Using a device such as an EEG measuring system allows practitioners to see when they are in states that correspond to better self regulation and thought control. By knowing when this is happening you can reach advanced stages of mental control much faster then you would be able to otherwise.
One of the most important measures for novice to intermediate practitioners is the amount of time they spend with the brain operating in alpha frequencies. These are the brain waves that are characterize the focused calm that meditation is known for. Researchers describe the “alpha rhythm” as follows:
“The positive effects of mindfulness meditation on pain and working memory may result from an improved ability to regulate a crucial brain wave called the alpha rhythm. This rhythm is thought to “turn down the volume” on distracting information, which suggests that a key value of meditation may be helping the brain deal with an often-overstimulating world.”
By simply keeping track of this one variable (brain wave frequency) you will greatly enhance your ability to clear your head, stay calm and turn down the volume on any distractions in your environment. simply keeping track of the amount of time you spend with your brain in alpha or theta brain wave frequencies is a great way to gauge your progress over time.
What Types Of Devices Are Cheap and Effective?
While I have only used 2 of these devices, I have read through a number of reviews of the consumer EEG measuring devices. The ones I have used were convenient, comfortable and accurate.
When these devices first came out, many people were skeptical of whether or not devices would be able to recreate the accuracy of some of the devices used in a lab setting. Surprisingly, despite being far less expensive and complex then the devices used in a lab, many of the headsets consumers can purchase share 90% or greater accuracy when compared to laboratory grade equipment.
The following are repeatedly cited as the top consumer devices:
Versus Wearable Headset
The versus wearable headset is one of the higher end consumer headsets. It is marketed as being used by everyone from extreme sports athletes to professional football players. They even market the products to students or professionals with high stakes jobs.
The headset is currently priced at 399$ making it one of the more expensive consumer products. The advantages of the Versus headset is that it has some of the most advanced software and accurate measuring of any device on the market. In fact the software has a “baseline measurement tool” that allows you to take baseline measures of your current cognitive abilities.
You then are directed to perform a series of games that you can play on an ipad or other tablet device. These games interface with the headset and allow you to take actions in the game based on your thoughts. These actions and the series of games you play allow the device to get an overall measure of your current cognitive abilities.
Once you know your baseline you can use the brain training sessions to improve cognitive functioning. The device even splits up the measures of cognitive functioning into sub categories and directs you to train on the categories where you can benefit the most from improvement.
Neurosky’s mindwave headset is one of the cheaper options available for the consumer market. Headsets start at around 80 dollars and continue to the 120-140 dollar range for headsets with software and application packages. Unlike the Versus headsets, Neurosky headsets rely on apps which are created in house and by 3rd part developers.
Unlike the Versus headsets, there is not one type of proprietary software or app that consumers will use with this headset. For this reason it will take a little more trial and error to figure out which headset you should actually be using. For example, the EEG mind research tool allows users to develop their own research projects with the EEG input from the device.
The developer tools apps allow users to create their own games within a pre-created app framework. Therefore, the Neurosky is probably the best bet for someone looking for the most flexibility and the widest application for a headset. Unlike many of the other headsets that have platforms for open source software development, Neurosky goes one step further by platforms and tools for open source development of apps for their devices.
The Muse headband is branded as “your personal meditation assistant”. It was primarily developed to help people learn to meditate. The muse does this by presenting the wearer with a calming image on the device being used (phone or tablet) along with sound effects that fit the image.
When the users mind is calm the image and sounds are more calming. When the user’s mind starts to wander or is burdened with thoughts the headband gently alerts the user by providing sound effects that indicate a loss of focus. At just under 300 dollars the muse is definitely not cheap.
Probably the biggest benefit of the muse is that it is a plug and play device requiring little in the way of troubleshooting, tinkering or experimentation. Unlike the Neurosky or other device that rely primarily on open source software, the Muse has fantastic meditation software that is standard out of the box. This makes the Muse ideal for someone who simple wants a way to quickly improve their meditative practice.
The melon headset was developed thanks to a popular Kickstarter campaign that the founders ran. You can see them discuss their inspiration for the headset in the video. The main purpose of the Melon headset is to give users an idea of when they are in the “focused” state.
As mentioned in the video, the focus state corresponds to the alpha brain waves that occur during a more relaxed and calm focus. One of the founders describes this state as being completely engrossed in your work or the task at hand with little concern for outside distractions.
Since the company responsible for the Melon headset is still relatively new they regularly run out of inventory. To get one of the Melon headsets you will have to put your name on the wait list. Given the Melons low profile and comfortable fit it is priced at a reasonable 150 dollars. While it’s certainly not the cheapest headband, user feedback has been particularly high. As you can see in the video it looks much more comfortable and stylish then the other headbands.
The Emotiv headset is one of the more advanced consumer headsets. At around 400 dollars it is definitely on the pricier end of the spectrum. The Emotiv EPOC is the more expensive headband at around 1400 dollars. The difference between the headbands is that the EPOC has 14 sensors and allows for EEG measurement that Emotiv says is comparable to what is offered in a hospital setting.
The quality and capability of the headbands is due in part to the founder of Emotiv, Neuroscientist Tan lee. The devices have been used to control software that interfaces with the users thoughts as well as for brain training programs. The company provides a wide range of developer tools including a host of APIs and SDKs for developers to create applications for a wide range of uses.
Overall, the Emotiv bran headsets are two of the best headsets on the market. The EPOC is more appropriate for someone who is using the headset for detailed research or training. For the normal consumer looking to use the headset strinctly for meditation, the insight is more appropriate.
What Else Can These Headsets Be Used For
If you have been watching any of the promotional videos shown above you can see that there are a wide range of uses for these headsets. While I have been focusing on their use in mental training, there are actually a number of different applications that developers have been focusing on.
One of the most popular applications for these EEG headsets is their use in controlling software applications and physical devices. One of the devices that developers have jumped at the opportunity to devlope software for is drones. There are a number of programs that have been created that allow users to control drones with their thoughts.
Another popular type of software is video and audio editing software that allows for control of various editing tools through the EEG interface. It will be interesting to see what the future holds for these tools. I like the video below as Cody Rall of tech for psych discusses some of the potential uses for these devices that are likely to grow in popularity.
Recommendations and Conclusions:
If you are interested in using one of these devices as a supplement or training aid during meditation, I would suggest focusing on 5 minute blocks of time. You can first use the device for these shorter periods after you have a baseline measure of your resting EEG reading.
I would start with 5 minutes once per day and increase your time from there. Anecdotal experience says that increasing to a minimum of 20 minutes per day will provide you with noticeable benefits. Of course more time can be taken. Again, anecdotally, regular meditation practitioners cite the anywhere from 20 minutes per day to 45 minutes twice per day as being the most beneficial. While many people experience benefits outside those parameters, they are more rare.
If you enjoyed this article, I would check out the article on how to cure attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. That article discusses some of the things you can do to train your brain outside of using EEG devices.
Another method of monitoring meditation that has proven very effective is heart rate variability training which I discuss in detail in the article on how to know which type of meditation is best.
Finally if you are interested in learning about how your mind can affect your physical health you should read the article on how to reduce stress and lose weight with your mind. Alright, I hope you enjoyed that short overview of an exciting new technology. If there are any other major uses for EEG readers that were not covered, please mention them in the comments.