What Happens if You Meditate Drunk and Other Adventures in Meditation Wearables

I’m one of the many who jumped on the meditation bandwagon during the COVID-19 pandemic. In a time of isolation and fear, I needed an outlet to find calm. I had always wanted to try meditation even when there wasn’t a global pandemic. I felt like the opposite of “zen” and “calm” and more like “anxious” and “harried.” However, I grew up in the south in a time and community where meditation and yoga were for hippies and heathens, and I struggled with this label of “being someone who meditates.”

Last spring, my company began hosting weekly mental health and awareness programs (go Paysafe!). I finally attended one in October. The session was on mindfulness and meditation, and I asked the speaker for advice on overcoming resistance to the word “meditation.” She recommended to think about meditation as going to the gym for my brain, and to focus on the brain science and on the power of neuroplasticity to change your brain and bring new traits into your life.

I remember saying something like, “Thank you, that helps. But I’m still struggling a little. I mean, cowboys don’t meditate.” Her next 10 works stuck: “What if you thought about it as a performance accelerator?” Now we’re talking! I’m in!

That was the day I downloaded Headspace (free through my company, again go Paysafe!), which would eventually become my gateway to meditation. I was meditating for 3 minutes a day and not feeling the effects (not terribly shocking in retrospect) and kept wondering “Am I doing this right?” I remembered hearing the creator of the Muse meditation headband speak at a conference at HBS, and her saying that the headband gives neurofeedback that would answer that question. I bought it for myself as an early Christmas present and started experimenting.

How Muse Works:

The Muse headband and mobile app use EEG technology to detect and record your brainwaves and the electrical activity of your brain. EEGs in themselves are not uncommon, but what is unique with Muse is that it translates this activity into usable feedback during your meditation session. In the most classic Muse example, a user can select a meditation with soothing rain as a soundscape. If your mind is calm, the sound of the rain is slow and peaceful. If your mind starts to race, you’ll start to hear storms brewing. You’ll also hear birds if you have a period of extended calm during your meditation.

I felt a little too distracted by the weather feedback, and also found myself getting annoyed at the birds. I could actually hear my brain activity go haywire after a bird award/dopamine hit. Thankfully there are other sensors in the device for breath, heartrate, and body stillness that have different audio feedback and still come with the nice data visualizations. My personal favorites are breath meditations, during which you count breaths and hear a soothing breeze if you’re in harmony, and then a heartbeat meditation where you listen to your own heartbeat and try to slow it down with your breath.

When you finish your session, you can immediately see the results of your brain activity, your bird awards, and various other metrics depending on the type of meditation you chose. There is something so cool and beautiful about being able to detect and see a visualization of your brain waves in the comfort of your own home, any time you want. The gamification aspect of the app is appealing to those of us who are a wee bit competitive. There are various personal and group challenges, awards and points you win in the app, and not gonna lie – birds are immensely satisfying (and can be disabled if you disagree)!

My Muse Results:

Here’s my first Muse meditation – notice 3 minute session length, 1 bird, and 19 seconds of calm. Again so funny to me now that I expected 3 minutes of meditation to be life-changing.

Here’s my Muse meditation that I did after a glass of wine (for science of course). Notice 10 minutes, 30 birds, and 4+minutes in calm lol! Eventually I tried meditating after several glasses (anything for science!). My session didn’t save because I moved too much, got a bad signal, and then eventually just fell asleep! 

After about a month of sticking with it, Muse ended up being the perfect way for me to develop a meditation practice. The data, science, and gamification kept me going until I could actually feel the positive benefits of meditation itself. Meditation can be really hard and frustrating at first. Do you overthink now? Wait until you’re anxious about being anxious and thinking about thinking… or even worse, thinking about thinking about thinking. I’m still always distracted while meditating but am much less bothered by my thoughts and less anxious overall.

What’s next?

Muse is not the only meditation wearable or the only example of technology and meditation. Throughout the semester, I’ll be focusing on this general subject of digital transformation of meditation. I’m happy to crowd-source the next topic. Anything you want me to cover in my next post?

10 comments

  1. alexcarey94 · ·

    I have also been very interested in meditating since the pandemic. Currently I use the “Melissa Wood Health” App that has meditation sessions. I think this product is very cool and using technology in a new space that you typically wouldn’t anticipate tech would be used. I wonder if this data tracked from various clients will be used for other things in the future- to help give advice or further research on things like stress & anxiety.

  2. shaneriley88 · ·

    Like many others, during COVID, I was cut off from a gym and was on a 123453678-week backlog, waiting for some free weights and a stationary bike to arrive at my apartment. My stress release or quasi form of meditation became walking-like a lot of walking. Even after a run and some at-home homemade weight workout, I’d still crave a walk. Last June, I moved out of Brookline and into Boston proper. Without fail, every time I pass through Brookline, I start to think, “hmm, I could use a walk”. I would curious to see how a device like this could be used during more physical activities.

    Awesome post. Looking forward to the next!

  3. Scott Siegler · ·

    It seems incredible to me that a platform like this is widely available. This type of feedback loop based on brain waves wrapped up in a friendly user interface sounds really complex. I do not meditate at all, but if I ever felt compelled to, it’s so cool knowing that something like this exists. I love the concepts of gamification for health and habits that tech companies are coming up with. It would be cool if you found something similar for sleep to cover in your next post!

  4. Always love experiments for the sake of science!

  5. williammooremba · ·

    I am wondering if this sort of technology could be expanded for psychological treatments. I think this would probably look a bit different. I know personally, the current implementation seems to be looking at a different use case. The idea I am not meditating “correctly” and having negative reinforcement if I am messing up sounds stressful for me just thinking about it. However, the general idea of having brain activity be able to act as a sort of third party seems very compelling. I think this kind of technology could be useful for treating anxiety for instance.

  6. sayoyamusa · ·

    The idea of using brain waves might not be surprising as you stated, but I’m impressed with how easily people can enjoy it through your meditation app! I thought these kinds of technologies were always customized for highly specialized organizations, but I was wrong. This makes me think that technology is ubiquitous, and we can apply almost all of them without limitations for our business. Exciting but a bit overwhelming to me…!
    I’m just wondering if there could be space for improvement to your company’s app, for instance by using machine learning to add a consulting function. If you could apply what we’ve learned in the course, that would be great. I look forward to learning more from your future posts with experiments!

  7. lisahersh · ·

    Very engaging post, Courtney! I’ve been going to yoga for years and would only ever meditate during the last 5 minutes of class when the instructor guides you through it. I’ve been trying to get into meditation during the pandemic, but with my yoga studio closed (and apparently an inability to stay still without doing an hour or so of downward dog first) I’ve really been struggling. I have a Fitbit wearable and they have a “relaxation” mode that is breathing-based with success measured by decreases in heart rate. I’ve tried it a dozen or so times (a few times while drunk so I see we have that in common lol!), but it really hasn’t been doing it for me. It indicates if you’re doing well by showing “stars” but in all honesty, it feels like the stars pop up at random. I’d never heard of muse before, but I’m definitely going to check it out – thanks for sharing your experience! As someone who’s all about needing the data to motivate improvement, it sounds right up my alley.

  8. changliu0601 · ·

    I had an eye wearable equipment giving me eye massages with music, bird, ocean or rain session to calm myself down.I always fall asleep in the process.I feel like a physical and mental relaxation.During the pandemic, grocery shopping is actually a medication for me

  9. I enjoyed your post Courtney. Very fun to see how you were skeptical of the technology, overcame that and have learned to use it in a positive way. This is a very interesting form of wearable tech. I didn’t realize that measuring brain waves was such an accessible thing.

  10. Chuyong Liu · ·

    Love the post, Courtney! I personally have a struggle for meditation and even doing yoga. I can’t seem to enjoy anything (other than a massage) that tries to slow my mind from thinking. I always tend to feel anxious when I am quiet, alone, and not imputing outside information. I love to hear more about the good that meditation can do for us. The brain wave tracker is really cool! I can relate to being annoyed by the bird’s sound, mine would probably be storming all the time.

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