Monday, 11 November 2013

BrainBot on the right track

BrainBot (http://www.brainbot.me/) 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 (https://www.facebook.com/BrainBot.me/posts/162738513876839), 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.

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