Friday 28 November 2014

Muse review updated December 28, 2014

I received the Muse on November 27th.  Here are my impressions so far:
1)  The Muse has been well-designed from aesthetic and ergonomic standpoints and is no more intrusive than a pair of glasses.  Unlike the NeuroSky device, it is very comfortable and expands for an extra-large head size.  Setting up and getting the application to work was trouble-free on my Galaxy Note 8.0 tablet.  There is an FAQ site that answers a great many questions, although not all that I had, but my contact at Interaxon has been extremely helpful in clarifying the additional questions that I had.
2)  The Calm (downloaded for free) is the only app that is available at present.  It is designed to facilitate and train calm focus.  It differentiates between calm, active, and neutral states. These states are not defined in terms of EEG bandwidths, which is apparently proprietary information.  Granted, but it is unclear what is meant by these different states.  Is "active" the same as wandering (which is what the documentation says) or does it include active thinking as in problem solving?  Would it not make sense to differentiate active thinking from wandering (see my post, Automating on the road to mindfulness, dated 11/5/12)?  And what does "neutral" represent?  All that we are told is that it is somewhere in between calm and active.
3)  The Calm app provides a diagram of the quality of the connections from the different sensors as well as an indication of noise.  This is essential information to ensure that you are getting proper readings.  I have not had much trouble in getting good readings on myself, but I tried the Muse on one of my daughters and had great difficulty getting one of the sensors to show up on the diagram.  What I discovered was that the band was not touching her forehead no matter how I adjusted it.  (She has a rather oblong rather than round head.)  I had to insert a wedge under the band in order to get the sensor to touch her forehead.  
4)  There is also a calibration exercise at the outset.  This is a good idea as it has the potential for getting an individual profile on how your mind works.  The exercise is a semantic fluency task common to many psychological tests.  This type of activity is supposed to correlate with frontal and temporal areas, which is where the sensors are, and draws on semantic memory.  However, it is not clear how this kind of cognitive activity specifically relates to what is supposed to be measured by the Calm.
5)  The instructions for the Calm app ask that you count your breaths.  Although this is a standard meditation technique, I have always preferred noting the breath as in the Mahasi technique.  Initially, it did not seem to matter whether I counted my breaths or simply noted them.  I thought it would probably work for any technique that has a single object focus (focused attention or FA), but I doubted whether it would work as well with an open monitoring (OM) or mindfulness meditation technique, which has a different brainwave profile.  However, over time and having amassed many hours of use of the Muse, both using the feedback from the app and using the app with the sound off to simply to monitor different ways of meditating, I am beginning to wonder whether the technique I use is the primary determinant of the calm score I obtain.  (More about this later.) 
6)  The sound feedback is pleasant enough consisting as it does of water lapping on the shore and stormy winds.  In the supporting documentation, the wind is clearly identified as representing wandering, but there is also reference to environmental sounds, which presumably include the lapping waves.  I asked about this and was told that, while the wind represents activity as it occurs, the waves reflect longer term activity:  "The wave sound gradually gets quieter throughout the session if you keep the winds calm enough."  This is helpful information as I had difficulty understanding how the wave sound worked as it seemed to be independent of the wind.
7)  In my experience, while I can quiet the wind sound, the waves are more or less constant throughout, although they vary in intensity.  I question the value of having such constant sound as this can be quite distracting in itself.  In a future post, I will explain why this presence of more or less constant sound undermines the intent to focus on the breath.  Because of how distracting the sounds were to me, I prefer to run the app with the sound off and use it just to monitor my meditation.  I found I achieved a better calm score with the sound off than I did with the sound on.  This may be because I have meditated on my own for a number of years and know how to calm my mind.  Also, because I have mainly practiced with an open monitoring style of mindfulness meditation, my mind may have a tendency to go to these environmental sounds, especially as they kick up and become more prominent.   
8)  The data provided by the app is quite helpful and allows you to review with graphs the profile of active, calm, and neutral throughout the session and to review moment by moment what occurred in terms of these different states.  After you achieve a score of 5000, the Muse opens up to added features.  These features reflect basic statistics about what you have been doing with the Muse such as the time of day you practice, how long you practice, and suggestions about what you might do to improve your practice.  You can also review previous sessions and compare them in terms of how calm you were. 
9)  Given that there is not at present a variety of apps available, I would like to see the Muse made compatible with BioExplorer and/or BioEra, which are widely used in neurofeedback circles.  This would make it very easy for anyone familiar with either software to develop their own applications.  At the very least, I would like to see the raw EEG, preferably broken down into standard bandwidths.  I am advised that this is accessible with the developers’ kit, but it would nice if it was an included app rather than something that you have to program yourself.
10)  I have a concern about how substantial the main sensors are as they are placed on a very thin band.  The Muse team said that the strip could be replaced for free within 180 days.  I wonder whether the strip would last beyond that point with regular use.  We will see.

In summary, I have many questions and quibbles, but overall the Muse has many impressive features and a reasonably good app that appears to work in developing focused awareness.  The sound feedback is a major concern, but this is going to be a problem with any attempt to use this type of device to assist meditation when constant sound may act as a distraction.  As a long-term meditator, I prefer to use the Calm app to monitor my meditation rather than to assist it.  I look forward to more applications for the Muse to fulfill the promises that have been made for it.