One of the oft-cited statistics in the Paleo/Primal community is a variant on the old 80/20 rule (also known as the Pareto Principle). Namely, this principle states that your health and body composition is determined 80 percent by your diet and 20 percent by exercise, stress reduction, amount of sleep and other lifestyle factors. Some primal enthusiasts even break that last 20 percent down very specifically: 10% exercise, 5% sleep and 5% stress reduction.
Perhaps it’s the fact that I’ve been living a primally-aligned lifestyle for a couple of years now, but I find that last 5% is the most important for me. When I am stressed, it not only affects my health directly but also has an impact on my diet, my exercise routine and my sleeping habits. A particularly trying day at work or a recent and unresolved fight with my partner leads me to crave carbohydrates and thus stray from my normally well-controlled diet. It also affects my motivation to exercise. If I do force myself to go to the gym I often find myself distracted, which reduces the quality of my workout and increases my risk of injury due to bad form. Finally, my already-less-than-ideal sleep patterns (discussed in a previous biohacking post) are disrupted.
To help reduce stress (largely unavoidable in today’s modern world), I meditate for a minimum of 20 minutes daily. I always schedule a brief meditation session after lunch, closing the door to my office and doing a simple breath-focused practice before returning to my usual grind. If possible, I also try to do another session in the evenings after work or after dinner.
I’ve been doing this religiously now for about two years but have actually been a devotee of the practice off-and-on for a decade or more. There are now any number of studios, smartphone apps (I like Insight Timer), websites and other resources to help people interested in incorporating meditation into their daily routines. Moreover, an increasing number of research studies have shown the health benefits of meditation, including reductions in blood pressure, reduced anxiety, increased memory, and higher levels of executive functioning.
One of the challenges with any good meditative practice, however, is controlling our “monkey minds”. The term refers to the way in which our brains rapidly bounce from one idea to another, much like a monkey swinging from branch to branch in a tree.
When we meditate, the idea is to slow our monkey mind down by counting our breath, focusing on a single image or idea, repeating a mantra, or any number of other attention focusing tricks. Unfortunately, my monkey mind is extremely active. It is less a monkey mind and more like a cartoon “Tazmanian Devil” mind. In fact, my meditation sessions are often quite frustrating and even stress-inducing (rather than stress-relieving) because I cannot get my thoughts to quiet down.
Thus, the topic of this particular biohack: the use of biofeedback to help me focus my attention and control my monkey mind when meditating.
In this case, I purchased a commercially-available device known as Muse. There are a number of similar devices out there, such as the Thync Wearable and the NeuroSky MindWave, but I selected the Muse because of its availability, reviews and compatibility with my iPhone (Note: I am not promoting, selling, or benefitting financially from Muse in anyway).
Muse is a Bluetooth-enabled headband that uses sensors on your forehead and behind your ears to non-invasively measure brain activity. It is very similar to the electroencephalogram (EEG) used in hospitals and clinics to detect electrical activity in your brain. The device actually detects all five brainwaves – Delta, Theta, Alpha, Beta and Gamma waves – and uses these signals to classify your brain activity as either active, neutral or calm during meditation.
It also provides direct feedback to you in the form of a gentle sound like rainfall or wind. The more active your thoughts during meditation session, the louder the wind or the more heavily the rain will fall. This aural feedback helps you refocus your attention and calm your mind. It also records and stores this data, allowing you to track your progress and see improvements over time.
So, does it work?
I’ve been using Muse for two weeks now, meditating with it for 15-20 minutes at a time. It did take some getting used to, particularly in learning not to “force” my brain to be calm each time the sound of the aural feedback increased. But I can see improvement both in terms of the data provided via the Muse smartphone app and also with respect to how I feel after each meditation session (i.e. I’ve found I feel calmer and more focused after meditating with Muse than I have previously meditating without feedback, although this is a rather subjective assessment).
Below are two examples of sessions with the device, the first recorded shortly after I purchased it and and the second recorded this afternoon.
While I wish I had the ability to see raw data (i.e. brainwave signals) collected, the device seems pretty accurate (e.g. correctly noticing a spike in my thoughts when one of my meditation sessions was interrupted by a cat jumping in my lap). It also offers a number of guided meditations through the app and uses positive reinforcement to make the experience more rewarding. While I still haven’t achieved the levels of 60-70% calm reported by some users, I have definitely improved in just a fortnight; my monkey brain is now only 80% active during these sessions, rather than 99-100% as in the past.