The practice of meditation can be supported by technology particularly in two critical phases of early adoption.
First, many first time skeptics needs some proof that what they are being told can be verified. What we want to see is some connection between what we are being told and what we are experiencing and technology can bridge that gap. Second, early meditators can be easily frustrated because it is hard to know if what they are doing is “right”. It is hard (impossible?) for instructors to be inside the student’s head making guidance a bit hit-and-miss.
So, let’s look at the first hurdle. An organization called HeartMath has developed a device, an ear clip that measures your heart beat. On an iPhone app the user can see their heart beat and the heart rate variability (HRV). Variability in the heart rate is an indication of stress. The app helps the novice user to simply breath in a simple in and out pattern. By following the visual on screen the user focuses on the breath. The side-effect of this process is that the heart comes into a coherent pattern and sends signals to the brain that calm has been restored. People who use this app and who can follow this simple process for as little as 5 minutes report a greater sense of calm – a reduction in the feeling of being stressed. This simple exercise bridges skepticism that anything as simple as breathing could have an impact on stress. See the screenshot below…notice that around 1 minute into a 5 minute breathing practice the heart coherence moves up from low through medium and then stays at a high level for over 4 minutes.
The second challenge is to get inside the head of a willing student. Fortunately, InterAxon has developed a simple device that measures brainwaves (Electroencephalogram – EEG). The Muse Headband measures EEG and categorizes them in three possible states:
Active: This is time spent with a wandering mind. Your attention is fluctuating.
Neutral: This is your natural resting state. Your attention isn’t fluctuating, but you aren’t deeply focused either.
Calm: A deep restful focus. These are moments when you’re truly in meditation.
For a practitioner having access to this insight is hugely helpful. There are people who give up on meditation because they don’t experience the benefits and my experience says that these attempts are rarely getting to the calm state. They may be experiencing the neutral state but this does not reduce stress. See the following screen shot from the Muse App indicating a 12 minute period of time largely quiet but not achieving a deep calm:
When I run meditation groups there is a need for practice between classes and the Muse App keeps people on track. The app itself helps people to start to become aware of a wandering mind and it also allows the instructor to review the progress that students are making.
What Muse does is quite ingenious. When Muse picks up brainwaves that are indicative of thinking or mind wandering the audio portion of the program will present sounds that mirror the noise in the mind with noise to hear. Even if we are not aware of the busyness of the mind we become aware of the noise in the earphones and that creates awareness of mind wandering. With practice the session might start to look as follows:
For the purposes of helping novices learn to meditate both of these technologies and apps from HeartMath and InterAxon are hugely helpful in providing proof and real-time feedback that moves the process along more quickly.