Over the past few years, brainwave reading technology has been making headlines and advancing quickly. By creating products that use electroencephalography (EEG) sensors, many companies have been able to make bold claims about their ability to detect, monitor and interpret the activity that's going on inside our brains.
Although this kind of technology has been used in scientific and medical settings for years, a number of consumer-focused brands designed for everyday use have become clear frontrunners in this space too. Emotiv, Muse, Neurosky, Melon, Versus and Melomind, to name just a few.
Using Thync: How we had digital supplements streamed to our brain
But with relatively little research into the efficacy of this new generation of brainwave reading tech, we wanted to find out how technology that was once only available in a research lab has made its way into our living rooms.
We spoke with a number of neuroscience experts about brainwave tracking, what it is, what's possible, how it translates to a consumer market and what the future holds for this kind of tech.
Dr Marina Papoutsi, a research scientist at the Institute of Neurology, UCL, explained we mean when we talk about brainwaves.
"Brainwaves are generated by neurons when they are actively engaged in a task. For example, when you are performing motor actions, neurons in regions involved in motor action are engaged and they 'fire'. Basically electric current is generated can be detected non-invasively (i.e. from outside the scalp) using EEG (amongst other devices)."
We wanted to know whether there are different types and what measurements are actually being taken. Dr. Papoutsi explained:
"The frequency of their firing rate generates brain waves/rhythms. The frequencies are named with greek alphabet letters, e.g. delta, theta, alpha, beta and gamma. Alpha waves (~8 - 12 hertz) are generally associated with "relaxation" and drowsiness. Commonly, eyes closed will produce stronger alpha waves. Because of this, alpha waves are most commonly used as a target in neurofeedback for relaxation purposes."
In depth: How wearables are helping people with panic attacks
So is it easy to use an EEG device to detect these brainwaves? She told us that in short, yes it is. But it all depends on which brain wave or aspect of the signal you're looking to track.
We wanted to find out how EEG reading tech went from being only possible in a medical setting to being available to all. So we asked a number of the experts what the process usually looks like in a lab and how that compares to the streamlined headbands we see on the market now.
From the research lab to the living room
Dr. Papoutsi told us that in a medical setting "high-density caps" that have between 100-200 sensors are used alongside a number of amplifiers. Take a look at some of these caps and you'll see there's a stark difference between the portable headsets you'll see on the market today. Dr. Papoutsi tells us most of the devices are so big they have to be transported in trolleys.
"In a typical research and clinical environment the sensors are also attached to the brain with tape or a cap, so that they don't move. A gel is also used to increase the conductivity of the skin and improve the connection between the scalp and the sensor. This typically leaves the hair a bit messy.
"We spend a lot of time to place the sensors, mark their position and ensure good conductivity. Depending on the number of sensors this can take anything from a few minutes to an hour."
But although there are many sensors required, Dr. Papoutsi tells us that if you're really homing in and know what you're looking for, that's not always necessary.
"Using multiple sensors allows you to detect a stronger signal and from multiple regions. However, this is not necessary, e.g. if you are only interested in recording from the visual cortex (back of the brain, where the alpha waves are stronger), you only need a few sensors at the back of the brain."
Big read: Why stress is the next domain of the fitness tracker
We wanted to understand what the main challenges are when bringing brainwave reading tech to the everyday consumer. So we spoke with Erman Misirlisoy PhD, Lead Neuroscientist at Peak.
"It is generally not too difficult to measure brain waves in the alpha band, but high frequency waves can be much harder to record. As with any device that measures electrical brain activity, the questions they would need to answer are:
- Can people really use this at home where they freely move around without compromising the brain data?
- How can you minimise the recording time and amount of data required for high quality recordings?
- Are the signals you record really related to the behaviours or cognitions you are trying to interpret?
So the concerns are clearly not just about the sensors, the tech and how portable it is. But the way it's used and the quality of the recordings. Dr. Papoutsi agreed and said that making sense of external noise can be one of the biggest issues when it comes to reading EEG signals:
"The EEG signal measured on the scalp is very weak, e.g. 100uV (microVolts). You can imagine that this signal can be easily masked by external sources of noise. Anything that has electricity can produce a small electric field that could be picked up by the EEG signal if it is close enough or if it is strong enough."
How do we interpret all of this data and can we do anything meaningful with it?
Dr. Lynda Shaw tells us that there's another thing to think about: how we interpret all of this data and whether we can do anything meaningful with it.
"We still know so little about the brain, I worry that if the regular consumer were to use future equipment made for such a purpose the interpretations of any data would be inaccurate, misleading or even incorrect. That said, technology moves on at break neck speed, so who can say what we will be using in the future."
Scope for the future and proving it works
There are clearly lots of factors to consider. Like will the tech be advanced enough? Who will make sure it's used correctly? And what will we do with the data after? But although it may seem like there are so many questions and so few answers at this point, you could probably have said the same thing for heart rate monitors or pedometers years ago. Just because there are challenges doesn't mean consumer-ready EEG devices won't be widespread and effective soon.
We asked the experts what needs to happen to make that a reality and prove the efficacy of these products. They all agreed that the answer is further study that's backed by science, peer-based reviews and tonnes of testing. Erman Misirlisoy told us:
"There is certainly scope for EEG to be useful for regular consumers without experts. However, the development of these technologies absolutely requires good scientists, engineers, and software developers, in order to build a device that is both reliable for everyday recordings and easy to understand in the analysed data that it returns to the user."
Dr Papoutsi agreed and told us that we could actually learn a lot from previous iterations of EEG reading devices. However, he called on device manufacturers to come clean with their research so products can be evaluated scientifically.
"Back in the 60s and 70s biofeedback with EEG was quite popular, but was quickly associated with claims that had not been experimentally proven. Biofeedback devices would be used in holistic therapy and it was presented as the cure to almost everything.
Biofeedback and neurofeedback got a "bad" name in scientific circles and research into more of these methods almost stopped
"Admittedly this gave biofeedback and neurofeedback a "bad" name in scientific circles and research into more of these methods almost stopped. I think this is where we can learn from history and make sure that any claims made by commercially available systems are backed up with proper scientific evidence. Companies should provide such information."
During our research we found it quite difficult to actually get to the bottom of what some of the newest names in brainwave reading tech actually do. Sure there's mention of an EEG sensor and an accompanying app, but where? What types of brainwaves are being monitored here? What standards are being used? How is the data being interpreted? And how does the app interpret it?
It feels like it's all about the bold and often broad claims, but lacking in the scientific backing — or at least that's the first impression you get when visiting many of these companies websites.
Erman Misirlisoy agreed and believes that even when you're talking to a regular consumer, you need to be more transparent about what it is you're doing and why when it comes to the brain:
"It is often not clear exactly what existing devices are trying to target, and at times it's even difficult to understand if they are reading or actually stimulating brain activity. I believe this should be made clearer to consumers if they are to use the technology without experts present."
Dr Papoutsi echoed Misirlisoy's concerns, stating that if these devices really want to be taken seriously, then scientific evidence is needed (and lots of it):
"The application of such devices is also a domain that needs further research. If they want to present their case as scientific then they should provide the research that their claims are based on.
"For example, if a company claims that their neurofeedback device that translates brain waves into music will calm you down, they should be able to show that it is indeed the music generated by the brain waves and not just the music that has the calming effect ... otherwise why not just listen to music?"
It's clear that this space is still really new. There have been a handful of studies into the success of consumer-ready EEG devices, but the academic backing and scientific claims just don't seem to add up quite yet.
However, all devices built for consumers are likely to be stripped back, streamlined and dumbed down to a certain extent. That doesn't necessarily mean there isn't huge scope for it to become useful, effective, and potentially even life changing, in the future.
How we test