Monday 11 November 2013

BrainBot on the right track

BrainBot ( is a “soon-to-be-released” app that uses the NeuroSky platform to provide feedback to users on their brain state.  This sounds like so many other meditations apps out there, but BrainBot is decidedly different.  For one, the developers went to the trouble of actually researching meditators.  They went trekking through the Himalayas and plugged in meditating monks to the NeuroSky headgear to see what they actually did while mediating.  They also thought about what would be the most useful feedback to a meditator.  Giving positive feedback (“you’re doing great”) would only interfere with meditating.  Giving a reminder or warning (“oops, wandering” or “notice  what is happening, and return to the breath”) actually could be helpful, particularly considering the distinct possibility that the warning would come much faster than the meditator`s unaided awareness of the arising of distraction.  This is very similar to the approach that I developed and wrote about a year ago in my post, “Automating along the road to mindfulness.”

Rohan Dixit, the neuroimaging guy on the BrainBot team, wrote an article (Dixit, 2012) that provides more detailed information about their methodology.  Their initial research involved comparing meditation and baseline epochs from a cohort of 31 long-term mediators from Tibetan and Indian monastic backgrounds.  The question they asked was whether it was possible to distinguish between the baseline and mediation state using the power of multiple frequency bands simultaneously.  Using a single-sensor at the right prefrontal area, as afforded by the NeuroSky headgear, mind-wandering during a resting period was compared to 15 minutes “during which they were asked to perform whatever type of meditation was most familiar.”   Using a classification system based on a support vector machine approach, they found that it was possible to distinguish between the baseline and meditation state at a rate over 75% and over 90% in the “best cases.”

The approach is commendable, but I will register a few quibbles.  The meditation styles were clearly heterogeneous, which suggests that the meditators were not all doing the same thing.  However, the model of meditation (return to the breath when aware of wandering) that the BrainBot uses is that of focused awareness as opposed to open monitoring (awareness of whatever shows up).  In the Ted talk given by Rohan (, the BrainBot emits tones continuously, which to me would be distracting.

Dixit, R. (2012, March). Meditation Training and Neurofeedback Using a Personal EEG Device. In 2012 AAAI Spring Symposium Series.

Thursday 7 November 2013

Is there a tipping point for neuroshaping technologies?

Rinzai Zen Master Philip Kapleau in his Zen Dawn in the West, published in 1980, challenged the idea that technological devices should be used to aid meditation.

Kapleau recounts how he was hooked up to a biofeedback machine that cost $200 (approximately $600 in 2014 dollars).  He easily exceeded the parameter for relaxation.  He gave his opinion of it:  "You can achieve relaxation, and far more, with zazen--without spending two hundred dollars for a mechanical toy.  Toys are for children not for adults!"

When asked his opinion of the claim that brainwave feedback could achieve results in far less time than traditional meditation, he exclaimed:  "You must be kidding!  Even if one is able while "plugged in" to ease into a relaxed state, this hardly brings deeper calm or inner peace of mind; it does not answer fundamental questions of existence; it does not transform one's life in any real way, all of which Zen awakening does" (p. 39).  His last dismissive comment on the subject:  "One who regularly plugs into a machine to relax loses the ability to act out of his own deepest resources and instead of being master of the machine becomes its slave.  This is not Zen.  Zen develops freedom, not neurotic dependence" (p. 40).

Kapleau sounds rather cranky, but he raises some interesting issues that may be relevant at this time when a new generation of meditation devices and apps is emerging.  At the time that he wrote, the aim of the use of then available technology was primarily relaxation through enhanced alpha wave production.  More ambitious agendas are likely to be pursued in present and future time with greater sophistication in targeting brainwaves at specific sites.  But does the essence of his critique still stand?  Can technology provide a shortcut on the path of awakening.  Is the quantification available with these technologies a diversion from simply meditating?  Will reliance on these technologies create an unhealthy dependency?  If there is a valid role for these technologies, is there a tipping point beyond which they become a hindrance rather than an aid?