Muse is a wearable device in the form of a headband that senses the brain's electrical rhythms (EEG). The headband is coupled with a smartphone app (Calm) that monitors the user’s brain electrical activity and gives immediate feedback to achieve a “calm” or meditative pattern. Over time, the use of this device is thought to help reduce distractibility, improve stress control, and improve mood.
The headband is light and comfortable but requires a bit of experience to fit properly and to transmit reliable signals by BlueTooth to the associated smartphone app. The device will not work with older versions of many smartphones (such as the iPhone 4). The instructions for use are straightforward and easy to follow, and the program is up and running within minutes. Once one gets started, it is straightforward to adjust settings and to personalize the program.
The user is asked to sit quietly with eyes closed and to focus on counting expirations. The app displays one of two pleasant visual backgrounds associated with wind or water sounds. The volume and frequency of these weather sound decrease as the EEG rhythm become the “calm” state. Therefore, one gets immediate and easy to understand feedback as to how one is doing. The sessions can be set to last from 3 minutes to 45 minutes.
Immediately after finishing a session, the app provides a graphical depiction of one’s EEG rhythm, grouped into “calm,” “neutral,” or “active” bands. The app calculates the amount of time spent “calm” and awards points for “calm” time. The points are associated with certain awards and expressions of positive feedback. Besides, the app graphically displays the percentage of time spent “calm” over variations and prescribes several challenges to increase time performance. All times performance of this is lovely and easy to understand and to manipulate.
The company’s website provides a great deal of information regarding frequently asked questions and troubleshooting. When I submitted a question to the company over the website, I received an answer within hours. The app allows one to permit for session data to be aggregated by the company for research purposes. I think it is useful to share personal data because they may ultimately determine how effective the device might be.
The Muse headband is a remarkable technological advance over earlier versions of EEG neurofeedback technologies. Neurofeedback is a technique that has been employed for mental health conditions for more than a decade and formerly required a link between traditional EEG recording devices with desktop or laptop computers. Through operant conditioning, these techniques seek to alter brain functioning by giving live feedback about EEG rhythms to the patient. Patients are rewarded if they can achieve certain EEG rhythm characteristics, such as decreased theta activity (4–7 cycles per second) or an increase in alpha activity (12–15 cycles per second). A higher proportion of alpha wave activity is thought to be associated with focused attention and a feeling of calm or well-being.
Traditional neurofeedback techniques have never been fully tested in psychiatric conditions for several reasons. First, these techniques are not protected by exclusive intellectual property, so industrial funding for large-scale trials has not been available. Similarly, devices designed to deliver neurofeedback have not been seen as unique medical devices by the FDA, which could be protected by patents. Furthermore, there is some disagreement about which pattern of EEG rhythms would be most therapeutic for particular groups of patients. I was not able to locate references to clinical trials using Muse technology specifically.
Although not formally approved for clinical use by the FDA, many clinics currently offer neurofeedback treatments. However, widespread clinical adoption of neurofeedback has not occurred due to concerns about cost relative to the uncertainties about efficacy. Most protocols recommended that individuals come to a supervised clinical setting for multiple sessions per week over several months. This is a time consuming and expensive endeavor which, due to lack of published scientific data on efficacy, is not reimbursed by insurance companies. With the Muse technology, EEG neurofeedback has entered the world of self-directed activity using a wearable device coupled with a smartphone app. Therefore, the cost is much reduced, and it becomes feasible to decide individually whether the techniques are a worthwhile investment of time.
The Muse headband costs $299, and the app is free. This appears to be a very reasonable cost, given the complexity of the technology and the amount of information obtained with its use.