The Muse Headband: Reading Your Brainwaves to Change the World

Can the Muse headband help people stay focused and lead more productive lives? Our writer heads to a party in the Hollywood Hills to find out firsthand.
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Can the Muse headband help people stay focused and lead more productive lives? Our writer heads to a party in the Hollywood Hills to find out firsthand.

It’s a Saturday night in late November and I’m navigating room-to-room through a massive house party at one of the many mini-mansions tucked away in the Hollywood Hills. Like most parties, there’s a small crowd of guests hovering around the open bar and even more people sampling the food offered by a half dozen servers busily making the rounds.

But the typical scene changes drastically as I descend a narrow, spiraling staircase and emerge into a room full of people … sitting in complete silence with their eyes closed.

No, it’s not an unannounced transcendental meditation workshop with David Lynch. Instead, it is something a little bit unusual and eye-catching. The silent people here are delicately holding iPad Minis in their hands and wearing a plastic headband that is plugged into their tablet. Meanwhile, a trio of trained professionals quietly move from person to person, monitoring their progress and occasionally offering words of encouragement.

Welcome to the world of Muse, a new device that its creators say measures brain activity and helps the user better focus their attention in something like a digital forced meditation.

“It’s like a spotlight where your mind can focus on one thing,” Muse co-creator and Chief Product Officer Trevor Coleman told me during a recent phone conversation. “Think of being at a cocktail party. There are a hundred conversations happening around you but you’re focused on one person, one conversation. That’s the skill of attention. The skill of meta-attention is to know where your mind is at during any given time and to move it to where you want it.”

Back at the Hollywood house party, I waited patiently in line for my turn to try on Muse. A middle-aged man in front of me removed the headband and was congratulated by one of the Muse professionals on scoring a “395”, whatever that meant. “Yeah, I meditate with a bunch of my professional athlete friends all of the time,” he said in that very specific brand of false humility mastered by certain Angelinos who thrive at letting you know just how connected they are to the universe and other unverifiable proclamations of personal and spiritual ascension.


Photo courtesy of Muse

As I sat down in a chair and put on my headband, I wondered how it could possibly work. I’d only recently started a very minor meditation practice and that was in the comfort and privacy of my own home. But here there were strangers watching me and a strange device strapped to my head that I was certain was only moments from telling me what a terrible job I was doing at becoming a Zen master. Because even as I mentally mocked the new age transgressions of those around me I was secretly pretty insecure about whether I could make this meditating headband thing work.

Instead, I found myself nearly instantly separated from the outside world. A calm and reassuring voice built into the Muse app gets your started on your focus exercise, running through a few simple steps to calibrate the headband.

“Our ultimate goal is to make it accessible and easy to use,” Coleman said. “We sort of make the technology part invisible. You can just put on the headband, do the exercise and feel the benefit.”

After you’ve calibrated the headband you are advised to focus your thoughts. As a standby focus, the Muse narrator suggests counting from 1 to 10, and imagining each number as you concentrate on breathing. In the background, you can hear the sounds of a light breeze. As your focus drifts (Trevor assures me it’s unavoidable), the intensity of the wind increases, peaking in what sounds like the opening crescendos of a large thunderstorm. When your thoughts are centered back in, the winds gently recede and you can almost see the idyllic green fields unfold before you.

“It is a purely mental exercise. There aren’t very many of those in the world. It really isolates the thing that technology does best,” Coleman said. “We had months of user testing where the users just didn’t really believe their minds were doing it. Once we figured out the right words to use, they were like, ‘What, did that really just happen?’”

Since it launched in May, Muse has been met with a largely positive response. Retailing for around $300, it has a 4.5 out of 5 star rating on Amazon. And while Muse doesn’t reveal the names of its famous users, the Canadian Olympic shooter Avianna Chow has said using the device has led to a measurable uptick in her performance.

Going forward, Coleman says he and his team hope to develop new exercises for Muse users. They’ve also opened the software up for developers who want to create their own exercises, or even games, to share with the public.

“We have an ‘opt in’ choice for users to share data,” Coleman said, repeatedly stressing that the company does not share user data with the outside world and only collects information that users voluntarily transmit. “Thousands of people everyday are sending in data and finding results based on age and gender that can help with depression, ADD and sleeping habits.”

After about four minutes, my session with Muse is over. An instant analysis tells me how much of that time was spent in focus, out of focus and somewhere in between. I was surprised to find I only spent one second out of focus, though the majority of time was somewhere in that middle ground. Full disclosure: I scored a 405. I have no idea if that’s good, bad or just ugly. Though I do know it’s slightly higher than the overly self-assured guy who tested before me, which is all the very un-Zen validation I require in the moment.

Ultimately, the Muse headband seems like a great supplement for someone looking to improve focus or even just build on a daily meditation practice. It might even be an essential item for someone that has wanted to work on those areas but needs a little help getting started.

“It’s the mental equivalent of cardio vascular health,” Coleman said. “You can’t practice the guitar or complete that project at work if you keep getting distracted.” 

Learn more about Muse at their site and by watching the video below.

Top photo courtesy of Muse