I remember the first time I heard about the Muse brain sensing headband I was parked in front of my lap top watching a TED Talk by co-founder, Ariel Garten and from that moment on I was intrigued with the technology and its possibilities. Five years later, I was delightfully surprised to not only have a test run of Muse, but to also meet and interview Ariel at InterAxon’s Toronto-based office.
When I first met Ariel for our interview, I was taken aback by her quiet, but strong and calming presence. Her piercing blue eyes were alert and very welcoming, making me feel instantly at ease. We chatted briefly about crossing paths at a conference in San Francisco and laughed at the irony of meeting each other so far away when we were a mere 2 hour drive apart back home. Ariel’s schedule is relentless as she zigzags across North America spreading the word about Muse and in the process has managed to befriend mind-body guru and icon, Deepak Chopra. By now, you are probably wondering “what exactly is The Muse brain sensing headband?” I’ll let Ariel explain:
It is a device that helps with your meditation practice. There are sensors on the forehead and behind the ears and it slips on like a pair of glasses. It actually lets you track your meditation in real time, offering feedback on what your brain is doing as it’s doing it. You hear your mind like the weather, so when your mind is wandering or distracted, you hear it [feedback] actually as stormy and as you come to clear, focused attention, it quiets the storms and if you’re very calm you’ll hear birds chirping. So it’s really this beautiful experience of being immersed in your own mind as you meditate.
Chantelle: Let’s talk a little about the different levels to Muse. It works in conjunction with the Muse smartphone app. When I plugged my earbuds in and tried meditating with it at the Wisdom 2.0 conference, I heard birds chirping, thunderstorms and the fluttering of wings… besides giving you feedback, it also has another purpose. Can you talk about that?
Ariel: The birds are in some ways our subtle mechanism to undermine the goal directed behaviour of meditation, because once most people find out the birds represent being in a meditative state the response is “Oh my god! I’ve just heard birds! I’m the best!” but the minute they do that, the birds fly away.
C: (Laughing) So it’s perfect for retraining those with a type-A personality who are really driven by reward.
A: Yeah… and to ask themselves ‘can I not get caught up in the reward?’ So at that moment you learn, ‘oh right, I can neither be mad about not succeeding or excited about my own success’. It’s about non-attachment to both because if you get mad about not succeeding you succeed less and if you get excited about your reward, you lose the reward.
C: That in itself is a great life lesson!
C: And it really becomes about sitting with what is. I know there are days when I sit down and my mind just won’t settle, so then it’s about just appreciating where I am at for the time being and allowing my attention to roam, while I make a conscious decision to practice yogic breathing.
A: Exactly. Actually one of the guided exercises on the Muse app is to listen to the wind, or mental noise, instead of fighting with it to be quiet. So you spend time listening to it and often what happens is the wind then goes away. It’s much more productive than sitting and thinking “Oh no! I hear a storm! I shouldn’t be thinking!” or “I need to make these bad thoughts go away!” Nooooo. There is nothing that’s branded as “bad” here. And actually once you spend time with the things that you thought might have been a little scary, that’s when they dissolve for you. And it’s just as acceptable to be in that present moment engagement with those things and truly observing them [negative thoughts], as it is to be in present moment engagement with the good things.
C: What is it InterAxon hopes to accomplish with the creation of Muse?
A: Most of us sit there– particularly if you’re new to meditation– you close your eyes and you try to let your brain go completely blank, but instead it bounces all over the room and then you get frustrated with it, with yourself and you say ‘this meditation thing sucks! I can’t do it, it’s not for me…’ and it ends there. So we built Muse to really help solve that, to really guide you and show you what’s going on in your own mind and teach you that it’s not about your mind being blank, it’s actually about learning to harness and focus your own mind and learning to work with your own internal conscious experience. And so we are able to make that internal conscious experience really tangible, so you can actually work with it in a whole new way.
“…it’s not about your mind being blank, it’s actually about learning to harness and focus your own mind”
C: When did your fascination with the brain begin?
A: My fascination about the world in general has always been there, so I was always wanting to know how things worked and how to make stuff. Growing up I made a zillion things, so I was always creative. And then I turned my attention to the self and wondered, how do we work? And then how we worked seemed to come from here (tapping her head), so how does this work? This led to my interest in neuroscience. By the time I got to high school, around the age of 17, I had a job in a research lab that specialized in brain stem cell research and at the same time had a line of clothing that I sold in stores in Toronto and New York– New York came when I was 19 years old.
C: I know you have a really rich background in the arts; your mom is an artist, your brother a musician, you started out in fashion design… I know society has a way of compartmentalizing art and science and often pitting them against one another. It seems like you’ve found a great way of marrying the two. Have you found you’ve been able to break through in areas where maybe others haven’t because of that ability to naturally bring those two worlds together?
A: Absolutely. As I was growing up, there was this opinion of “How can you be good at the arts and sciences? How could you be good at both of them?” And to me that always seemed crazy! The same amount of creativity went into making a garment as putting together a science experiment. And the same sort of dogmatism that goes into executing a science experiment also goes into the actual creation of the garment and the pattern making. Both of them require this leap of thought and insight as well as a rigid discipline of execution. Um… the rigid discipline of execution I was never so good at (laughter) but that’s what other people are there to help you with! So clearly the experience of Muse is something that very much marries really hard, deep neuroscience, you know processing, machine learning, engineering with this creative, human emotive side.
C: And at what point did you have that “a-ha” moment that turned into the creation of Muse?
A: In the early 2000s I was really interested in brainwaves as this ‘thing’ that has information. Then I started working at this research lab where we made concerts for people with peoples minds and you could actually hear the sound of your own mind.
C: That’s wild!
A: That was the first “a-ha”. Like, oh my god… You can hear your MIND! This is making it tangible and experiential. And then we started doing lots of different things with the technology and ultimately the “a-ha” came from Trevor Coleman, Chris Aimone who are my co-founders. So the three of us believed in creating something that was really valuable in people’s daily lives. In particular, Trevor and Chris had the sense that meditation was an amazing application of this and then about 5 years ago, we went to Wisdom 5.0, the same conference we met at, that focuses on meditation and technology and that experience solidified our hunch. That’s when we fully committed to making Muse for that purpose.
C: Do you think timing as well plays an important part as far as people being ready for Muse?
A: An incredible important part. We had committed to making a meditation tool and we spent the first few years calling it a “brain training device” because meditation was still considered to be on the fringe back then. Internally, we knew what we were building and we kept finding other language to talk around it and finally, about a year ago, we’ve been able to say, yes, this is a meditation tool. All these other adjectives were all correct and actually pointed to this thing as a meditation tool.
“We have 120 different researching stations that are using Muse. Mayo Clinic is currently running a study with breast cancer patients.”
C: And I understand that Muse is being used in many different applications, maybe more than what you all have even imagined?
A: It has. We have 120 different researching stations that are using Muse. Mayo Clinic is currently running a study with breast cancer patients. They get a Muse about 4 weeks before their surgery and then a Muse through their pre-surgical period to reduce the stress of surgery and then a Muse post-surgery as well. The theory is it will help improve recovery times and Mayo Clinic has now rolled that out to four different sites.
C: WOW… that’s BIG! Congratulations
A: Thank you.
C: I can imagine it would be rewarding to have collaborations like that happening. It’s so reaffirming of what you already know to be true.
A: It is and for Mayo Clinic, too, for them on their own volition and own dollars to go and say ‘this is so valuable and we want to roll it out.’ They’ve now rolled out the other studies to all surgery patients.
And the other incredibly gratifying part is getting emails from people who have seen change in their life, from moms who are able to say ‘I’m finally present with my child in the park. I didn’t realize every time I was in the park my mind was somewhere else and now finally I can recognize I’m here with my kid and that’s where I want to be’; to people with actual conditions who pilot themselves for anxiety or depression and are able to return to work after leaves of absence or cancer care process or their husband’s care process through an illness.
C: Do health care or other support care providers use Muse?
A: We have lots of psychiatrists, psychologists, life coaches, chiropractors, nutritionists who all now use Muse in their practice. So in the past, if you were a doctor and you had someone come in with a heart condition and you knew meditation would be good for them, as a doctor you tell the patient “go meditate” and as the patient, you think “okay…” and then they go back home and never meditate. So it was completely un-implementable. But now there’s a tool they can send their patient home with that they can actually use and make progress with and then come back and have a language to speak about it. You can look at the data together, review the sessions… so now there is a means for follow up and engaging them in the recommendation for meditation.
C: Do you see any other uses that Muse may evolve into beyond what it is today?
A: Oh definitely! The applications that we have with it will continue to grow. We have lots of developers that are building their own things on top of it. So it’s a tool that’s out in the world that people are using in so many different ways.
C: That would be quite interesting to see the developers creating apps and hacks for Muse. Have you noticed a developer community forming around Muse?
A: Yeah, there are a lot of hack-a-thons that come around that the consciousness hackers love. What’s amazing for me is when I go to a conference and everybody there loves Muse and there will be like 6 guys and gals who all built things with Muse and I don’t know them– I’ve just met them– and they’ve just taken the tool and built something of their own to show other people. It’s pretty mind boggling.
C: That would be pretty amazing. May I ask when you started meditating?
A: I started trying to meditate at the age of 8.
C: Now that’s impressive!
A: Not really, because I wasn’t very successful! (Laughter)
C: Okay, well the idea that you thought of it at that age is impressive! (more laughter)
A: True! (laughs) And from there I had several attempts throughout my life trying to learn how to meditate. I’ve sampled Zen meditation, used meditation and the principles of it in my practice as a psychotherapist– which I did for 8 years– so I kept sampling it but I really didn’t dive deep into meditation until we began creating and building Muse and I had a chance to use Muse and have an experience of my mind in that way. I was like “Ah! Okay, now I get it!” and that really helped me build my practice.
C: Over here on the whiteboard I’m seeing the quote, “the world is better off with you having tried to do something very important to you.” In the bigger picture, what is it you’re hoping to achieve with Muse?”
A: In the bigger picture, we’re hoping more people learn that the stories they have in their heads– the ones that hold them back– that it’s these stories that keep them feeling small or insecure or unhappy with themselves or their lives or their situation. My vision is that those stories are something that we learn to dissolve. That we don’t buy into them and as a result we’re allowed to be the healthy, happy, whole complete individuals that we are already are.
That’s a bigger picture I can definitely buy into. Thank you, Ariel, for allowing us to step into the world of Muse and meditation with you. And of course, I am now a happy owner of Muse. To read more about the benefits of meditation and various ways Muse brain sensing headband is being used, click here.