Muse review: The brain sensing headband that knows you're stressed

We count our breaths and stress out about relaxing with the Muse headband
Muse

This wearable promises calm. And focus. And relaxation. But Muse isn't some dystopian headset trying to alter your brain, instead its makers InteraXon want to train you to alter it yourself.

The routine is simple. Put the $299 Muse headset on, complete the breathing exercises to the sound of waves (neutral), storms (bad) and tweeting birds (good) which indicate how focused and calm you are. If your mind is too active, try to clear it based on the feedback that Muse gives you.

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Then compare that session's score to other lengths of session, times of day or days of the week and hit weekly targets. Alter the gender of the voice, the 'difficulty' level and time of the session. It's meditation for gadget geeks.

Meeting the Muse

The Muse itself is a thin, light headband that is placed across your forehead and tucked behind your ears - it is noticeable, especially the panels that sit behind your ears.

Everyone's different but for me, this is a home device. InteraXon suggests using it on the train - I probably would in a private carriage on a sleeper train, not on the 17.35 through Clapham Junction though, it'd get knocked off by someone's free evening paper.

The companion app runs on iOS and Android, smartphone or tablet and you can wear headphones connected to this, Muse itself is wireless and connects via Bluetooth. Alternatively if your neighbourhood is really quiet, you can use your device's speakers - wearing headphones can interfere a little with getting the right fit - but the effect is heightened with them. Sports earbuds that hook over your ear are a total no-no in terms of fit.

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It charges via Micro USB and has a series of five flashing LEDs on the right side which show when it's charging, charged, pairing and paired. You can also see the battery level within the app. It needs charging every five or six (seven minute) sessions so how much you charge it depends entirely on how frequently you use Muse and for how long.

The initial fitting took me ages, over five minutes, and a fair amount of pushing my hair back into a Puritan bob. I eventually figured out that I just needed to tighten the adjustable band further, so tight in fact that it began to hurt the skin behind my right ear. When in doubt, tighten it.

Still, it reminded me of a time I got stressed out after a back massage - I got conned into a course of six and didn't have enough money in my account to pay for it all. The difference being that once you get the fit right, it's very quick to recreate each session and though Bluetooth pairing is always going to be a pain, an update that came through midway through my testing now means it takes six seconds or less. Essentially, Muse shouldn't stress you out too much.

The only other complaint is that since Muse is nice and flexible, I got worried about bending and breaking the device the one time I took it along in my bag to go visit some family. A sturdy case would make me feel calmer about travelling with Muse.

Muse: How it works

So how does it actually work? Muse uses seven EEG sensors along your scalp - these are grouped into five points, three along the front of your forehead and one behind each ear.

EEG stands for electroencephalography which is a method of detecting electrical activity in the brain. EEG machines are used by hospitals to measure brain disorders including epilepsy, Alzheimer's and sleep disorders but now that the tech has become cheaper and smaller, some wearable startups are offering these EEG headbands and headsets which aren't medically approved.

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Muse's goal is to train your brain by making you aware of brain activity in real time using audio and visual cues (such as the sound of waves) so it's fundamentally different to something like Thync which claims to activate and alter brain cells and neural pathways.

Learning to discipline your mind takes practice to master but the Muse headband is looking to provide help for anyone with little experience of other techniques such as straightforward meditation. I also get the suspicion that this device is aimed at gadget lovers who like the compartmentalising that Muse offers. It still requires discipline but the act of choosing to use it, putting the headband on and opening the app signals that this is your relaxation or calming time.

Wearing the headset becomes part of the routine and it quickly becomes the one gadget that you associate with feeling still and quiet and well... calm.

Muse: The Fitbit for your brain

There will be two types of Muse users - those who feel the benefit of actively trying to still their minds during the sessions and leave it at that and number crunching, quantified selfers who will dive into the stats.

You have to complete a few sessions with Muse before you unlock the insights and full graphs, perhaps to stop users getting too bogged down in scores straightaway. It's also worth noting that you have to calibrate it every single time - by thinking about categories of words such as vegetables or musicians for a minute.

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When you do, you can see a percentage of time spent calm per session, dig into individual sessions to get timelines to zoom into, the total number of birds you've heard/earned and all sorts of other info. So for instance, you can see (as above) sessions where you started off with an active mind and calmed yourself down.

There's training and information cards on how Muse works and stress in general plus insights which will become more useful over time. I am apparently calmer (and hear more birds) at night than in the afternoon, for instance, which makes sense as chances are if I'm working in the evening, it's at a more leisurely pace.

There are weekly targets but these can be changed and I'm not sure how useful these are, to be honest. Nobody needs one more thing to put on the to-do list or feel bad about not completing. But each user will differ and for those with particularly hectic lives, aiming to spend 30 minutes a week alone, listening to soothing sounds can be no bad thing.

InteraXon has teased that more features and brain exercises are in the works so in theory the big investment in the device should be rewarded.

Muse: Brilliant or bogus?

The Muse Calm app itself says that muscles are louder than brain signals and I can safely say that during my time with the Muse it was very adept at picking up fidgeting, movement and when I opened my eyes.

The actual brain sensing was far from 100% accurate at picking up brain signals - in some sessions as soon as my thoughts wandered, the storm started brewing but in others when I purposely tried to stress myself out whilst staying still, Muse was none the wiser.

That said, the overall percentages of time spent calm per session correlated well with how I felt. My most active session by far was when I wrote part of this review while wearing Muse (naughty, I know). And the act of practising the training aspect - calming yourself down, focusing back on your breaths when you feel your mind wandering or Muse indicates that you are distracted or agitated - could be incredibly useful to a lot of people.

After my Muse sessions, I felt calmer and sometimes even a little spaced out, a feeling akin to doing a spot of meditation, some quiet stretches or getting a massage with Enya playing in the back. I haven't yet found that bleeding into the rest of my day yet, then again I've only been using Muse for a few weeks. But it's a useful device - some would say crutch - in terms of it's available for three minutes of quiet focus.

Muse isn't claiming to be a medical device, it sits in that interesting 'wellness' category but if it helps the people it's intended for then that's all that matters. It's not cheap but it's available to buy now for £238 or $299 - in black or white - with an interesting 30 day money back guarantee. So if you're still on the fence the best thing to do would be to try it out for yourself.


Muse
By InterAxon
For anyone interested in the Muse headband, we don't doubt it will help to achieve personal goals of reduced anxiety and stress or a calmer, focused mind. If you're in the market for a relaxation gadget, chances are you crave the routine and discipline a device like Muse can provide. The benefits it brings can be achieved without wearable tech and the idea of a weekly target for Muse sessions won't appeal to everyone. But for some, the price of this futuristic headband will be worth it to help them get to that state of calm for just a few minutes every day.

Hit
  • You really will feel calm after using it
  • Detailed app
  • Adept at sensing movement/fidgeting
  • Pairs and charges easily
Miss
  • Brain sensing not 100% accurate
  • Offers similar benefits to meditation/yoga
  • Expensive
  • Has to be worn very tightly

2 Comments

  • aMusing says:

    How much did you have to pay for that "massage with Enya playing in the back"?!

  • GameChanger says:

    The premise of this device is that the solution to "stress" is for the individual to work on themself to be better able to tolerate the stress of their present familial-socio-political-cultural situation.  The underside of this approach is that the person does not feel stressed enough to do something to change their external situation.  Perhaps life could become better if more people became empowered and were actively creating positive changes in their relationships and even in their society, government and cultural worldview.

    At least this device appears to not have the physically damaging effects of many other methods of obtaining numbed passivity (such as bingeing, alcohol, illegal drugs and pharmaceuticals). 

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