InteraXon Muse review: Real brain training for stress pots
I think it was around the time I stripped off while reviewing a drone that it happened. Slowly but surely, the stuff I’ve been sent to test has gone from phones and laptops to the strange and wonderful, and nothing sums that up better than the InteraXon Muse. Partly because, just looking at the box, we couldn’t really figure out what the damned thing was supposed to do.
“Muse – the brain sensing headband. Do more with your mind,” the box proudly declares. What exactly? Will it give me the power of telepathy? “See results with as little as three minutes a day,” it says. “Based on a scientific approach,” it adds. Come on, it’s got to be telekinesis, right? Sign me up for some of that.
The truth is more mundane, but still pretty left-field. The Muse is a headset that looks a little bit like an Alice band. It has five sensors: one in the middle of the head, one on each temple and two rubber pads that go over the ears. These combine to measure your thoughts.
That’s not as sinister as it sounds. The InteraXon Muse uses electroencephalography (henceforth referred to simply as EEG to save our sub-editor) to detect electric pulses generated by the brain, which sounds pretty science-fiction, but is actually quite old technology.
The NHS uses EEG to investigate epilepsy and dementia amongst other things, and the first human trial took place 91 years ago. Nonetheless, it’s unusual to see the technology commercially available in such a small and – comparatively – stylish package. That’s progress for you.
So what you have is a way of testing whether your brain is working hard or resting, which in the case of meditation is quite a useful way of documenting your journey towards serenity. Albeit, a hugely expensive one. You might find it tough to stay calm when you’ve just blown through £235.
I said it was a stylish package and that’s true to an extent, as long as you accept that it’s just a plastic headband. The band itself is thin and extremely bendy, leaving me a little concerned I’d damage it carrying around in my bag.
InteraXon suggests you may want to use it on the train (I certainly didn’t) so it’s definitely intended to be portable, but it feels like it could do with a case – for my own peace of mind aside from anything else. Given peace of mind is exactly what the InteraXon Muse is supposed to provide, you’d have thought that would be high on their list of priorities.
The headband charges via micro-USB, which – iPhone users aside – the majority of you should have spares aplenty for. Rather neatly, it has two charging points, meaning that if you need to use it plugged in for whatever reason, you won’t have a wire waving in your face and breaking your concentration. Battery life shouldn’t be a huge deal breaker anyway. For one thing, the light on the earpiece gives you a snapshot of how much juice is left at a glance, and for another, a single charge is good for five or six seven-minute sessions.
Said sessions can be a little fiddly to set up at first. I didn’t have any real issues, with my short, freshly chopped hair, but my girlfriend’s shoulder length hair did get in the way of the ear sensors. In the end, those with long hair are best off tying it back before they begin, saving some of the stress the Muse is designed to alleviate.
These teething problems get easier, especially if you’re the only person using it, and not needing to constantly adjust the band. It connects to your phone via Bluetooth, meaning, once paired, it’s fairly straightforward each time you need some tranquility. Just switch it on, put it on your head, and start up the accompanying free app.
Meditating with the InterAxon Muse
So, in case it’s not already completely obvious, the InteraXon Muse isn’t designed to change your brain for you. Think of it more as like a Fitbit or JawBone for feeling calm – in other words, it gives you the data, and encourages you into better habits rather than forcing your brain to clear, just like a Fitbit doesn’t force your legs to move.
To that end, upon loading the app, you first need to give the sensors a baseline level of your brain at full pace. To do this, it’ll give you a simple brain teaser to plug away at: it might ask you to name as many types of fruit as you can, for example, or musical instruments. All in your head, of course – it’s just about the headset figuring out what your brain “sounds like” when it’s going flat out on a round of trivia.
“Think of it more as like a Fitbit or JawBone for feeling calm – in other words, it encourages you into better habits rather than forcing your brain to clear.”
You can really see anything triggering it as well when you’re first setting it up. Blink, and you’ll see the headband picking up something, and it goes into overdrive when you start up proper critical thought. This is why it’s so adept at being a useful tool for clearing your head: it can instantly tell when your mind is wandering.
So: the meditation. You can pick how long you want a session to last (three, seven, 12 or 20 minutes), and how difficult you want it to be (which presumably just changes the sensitivity of the band), and you’re away.
You’re given a calming beach scene on the phone (there’s no sound output from the headset itself), and your job is to ensure the weather doesn’t change. Stop thinking and bliss out, and you’re rewarded with continuing peace and quiet – as if you were relaxing on a secluded beach in the Bahamas – but let your mind wander and things get stormy and unpleasant, like Skegness in a hurricane. Long periods of relaxation are rewarded by the sound of birds visiting and all this is also drawn on-screen, meaning you can see the wind blowing through the trees – which is a bit silly, given the app tells you to close your eyes when you begin.
Once the time is up, you’re shown the summary of your meditation in a nice chart form, and the gamification begins, with points handed out and medals awarded for reaching certain milestones (your first long meditation, for example, or attracting an unusual number of tranquil birds to join your circle of calm). The ultimate aim here is to level up and unlock new “locations”.
Now, I’ve tried meditation before, and what I’ve found is that every time you think you’ve cleared your head, you find yourself thinking “this is it! I’ve reached serenity!” only to realise that you’re thinking again and have, in fact, lost the game. The InteraXon Muse makes it pretty clear that, yes, that counts.
And yes, it will make you better at catching yourself if you use it on a daily basis. There’s a slight delay upon thinking and the “game” catching up with you, which is bad because it makes it quite hard to clear your thoughts proactively if you catch yourself before the headband does. Still, it will gradually make you better at clearing your mind, which is broadly what it promises on the box.
InteraXon Muse: Verdict
Whether or not that will make you calmer in stressful situations, and indeed whether you think that’s worth £235, is another matter. And it isn’t the only way of training yourself to keep calm and clear your mind: there are plenty of (far cheaper) apps available across the Apple App Store and Google Play promising to do precisely the same thing.
These don’t offer the analytics, technology and audio cues. In effect, they’re trusting you to police yourself, while the InteraXon Muse knows when you’re not calm and gently encourages you to improve. InteraXon certainly seems confident in its superiority, offering a generous 60-day money back guarantee for those unconvinced. Should you be a developer that wants to play with the kit, you can also access the raw unfiltered data on Mac and PC if you use the free development kit, which may sway some.
Personally, I don’t value the sort of peace-of-mind on offer here, and would find that kind of outlay extremely hard to justify. I’d rather try spending a couple of quid on an app, but given I’m now slightly calmer than I was a week ago, I can accept your perceptions may differ: live and let live, brother.
Further reading: The best smartwatches of 2016 – these are our favourite wearables