Understand your brain patterns with Ariel Garten, founder of Muse

Reading time: 12 minutes

Welcome to this edition of our Tools for Thought interview series, where we chat with founders on a mission to help us think better and achieve more without sacrificing our mental health. Ariel Garten is the founder of InteraXon, makers of Muse, a clinical-grade EEG device used by meditators and researchers around the world.

Passionate about the power of non-invasive brain-computer interfaces, Ariel is an artist, scientist and intellectual who is known for her work in integrating art and science. Her TED talk, which explains how looking at your own brain activity can teach you about your own patterns of stress, relaxation and focus, has been watched more than 500,000 times.

In this interview, we talked about the power of EEG; the science behind the Muse headband and how it differs from other methods; how meditation can create a virtuous cycle of mental wellness, focus, and quality sleep; how Muse is used by a wide range of people, from newbie meditators to Olympic athletes and scientists; and much more. Enjoy the read!

Muse headband for focus

Hi Ariel, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. First things first, what inspired you to start Muse?

It’s a joy and a pleasure to be here with you! The making of Muse started out with technology and a desire to improve people’s lives. I was working as a psychotherapist, where I would be teaching meditation to my patients, and recognizing how difficult it was. I had also worked in a research lab where we were using EEG technology to do biofeedback to give users insight into their own mental state, like when they were focussed and when they were relaxed.

Myself and my co-founders at Muse were trying to figure out the best application of this technology to help people use their brains in a way that would really improve their lives. In an ‘aha’ moment, it occurred to us that we could use this technology to make meditation easier — to guide people as to what was really going on in their mind during their meditation, and to solve the questions many people have when starting to learn to meditate: “What’s going on in there?” and “Am I doing this right?”

As a clinician, I knew about the power of meditation to make real change, and as a wannabe meditator, I knew how difficult it really was to do. We all knew that if we could make meditation easier for people, we would be making a real impact in improving people’s lives.

As we tried our initial prototypes with novices and expert meditators, and heard them go “wow” as they received the feedback, we knew we were on to something. From our original Muse that we launched seven years ago, which gave you real-time feedback on your brain during meditation, we then added features to allow you to track and do meditations for your heart, breath and body using Muse. And now, we have been able to apply the same technology to gain insights and improvements in people’s sleep habits.

What a fascinating journey! You built Muse to help refocus during the day and recover during the night. How does that work exactly?

Muse is a comfortable and flexible headband that contains EEG, movement and heart rate sensors that give you feedback on your brain and body during meditation. Muse helps you understand how to meditate by letting you know when your brain is focussed on meditation, and when it’s wandering.

The Muse connects to an app on your phone that translates your mediation state into guiding sounds- when your mind is calm, you hear calm sounds. When your mind wanders away from meditation and into thought, the sound changes and gets stormier, alerting you to bring your mind back to calm. It’s a really intuitive experience that shows you what’s going on in your mind, and how to stay in a meditation state.

After the experience you get data — charts, graphs and scores — that show you what your mind was doing during meditation, which helps you gain further insights into your mental states, as well as motivating you to continue on. People find it really effective: I commonly hear “I can finally meditate.”

One of the things we noticed was that Muse users were commonly meditating in the morning to help them get focussed for the day, as well as before bed to help make sleep more easily. So we created a purpose built headband, Muse S, that you can actually wear to sleep. It gives you meditations and biofeedback specifically to help you fall asleep and stay asleep.

This then becomes a virtuous cycle. You meditate during the day to reduce your stress and improve your focus, then at night it helps you quiet your mind to help sleep better, which then can give you a better day the next day — more refreshed, with better focus and cognitive control, better sleep that night… And up and up from there.

Sleep seems to be a big focus for you and the team. Can you tell us about the Muse S 2nd Gen, and the all-new Digital Sleeping Pills feature?

We have two new related, but distinct, new products that we’re really excited about. The first is the second generation of the Muse S headband. This is an all new headband, iterating upon the first generation of Muse S. Specifically, it has improved signal quality for increased accuracy and enhanced battery performance with up to 50% reduction in charging time. It also has an improved fit for a wider range of head sizes. This has all been achieved with the same comfortable, adjustable, and washable fabric band.

The second is a suite of features called Muse Digital Sleeping Pills (DSPs). DSPs are designed to help you through the wind-down process by responding to your brain’s rhythms and helping you disengage from your busy mind. Muse S detects the natural changes in your brain activity as you fall asleep and uses those changes to gently fade out your audio to cue your brain that it’s time for sleep. If you wake in the night, Muse S uses the same Smart-Fade technology to automatically fade in the DSP content to guide you back to sleep again. It really is a one of a kind feature and sleep tool that doesn’t exist on the market today. DSPs will be available to both Muse S 1st generation and Muse S 2nd generation users.

That’s exciting! Now, let’s dig a little bit deeper into how Muse works. Muse measures brain activity via electroencephalography sensors. Can you tell us a bit more about the technology, and why you decided to go with EEG?

EEG is the same technology that you see in hospitals and clinics to measure the brain’s function. It can tell you what areas of the brain are active. It’s a small flexible sensor that’s passive and just rests on your forehead or other areas around your head, and picks up some of the stronger electrical activity of the brain.

We were able to make a very small, portable, comfortable EEG that gets a clinical grade signal in 3 minutes. From the signal the Muse gets, you are able to get some information into which parts of the brain are active at that moment. We are able to translate that signal into something that’s really useful to the person using it — letting you know when your mind is focussed and meditating, and when it’s wandering.

When it comes to sleep, EEG is the only technology that can give you accurate information about your sleep. It’s what sleep labs use to know when you are in light sleep, deep sleep, and REM sleep. All other tracking technologies, like trackers based on heart rate or movement, can only guess at the state you are in, and are notoriously inaccurate. With Muse’s EEG sleep tracking, you are able to look back and see each of the stages of sleep, and only with EEG can you know not only how much deep sleep you had, but the depth of that deep sleep as well.

Muse headband for sleep

So many interesting benefits and potential use cases — what kind of people use Muse?

We have all sorts of people that use Muse. That includes people who have never meditated before and want to learn, to those with deep long term meditation practices who want greater insight into their mind and meditation. Some people come to Muse because they know they should meditate but haven’t been able to get the practice started, and others are literally meditation teachers using Muse themselves.

We are also widely used by people wanting to enhance their performance, Olympic athletes, sports teams in the NFL, Major League Baseball, pro soccer clubs, and more. We also have corporations that bring wellness programs using Muse to their employees. Especially these days helping your staff deal with stress and improve their sleep is very welcome by teams. We have also been extremely fortunate that Muse has been adopted by researchers. It’s been used in studies by institutions like Harvard, MIT, Mayo Clinic, NASA, and more.

It’s amazing that Muse is not only used by consumers, but also by researchers around the world. Can you share some examples of original research using Muse?

There are over 200 published studies that have used Muse! For example, Mayo clinic ran a trial using Muse as a meditation tool for breast cancer patients awaiting surgery, and saw a decrease in stress and fatigue, and increase in quality of life using Muse during the cancer care process. A recent study (not yet published) using Muse’s sleep features as part of a corporate wellness program saw a 20% improvement in overall sleep. Multiple studies by the Catholic University of Milan demonstrated that using Muse leads to decrease in stress, and also improvements in physiological markers of stress, like heart rate and improved brain markers of focus and calm.

Some of the studies are using Muse as a portable clinical grade EEG, like this study using Muse as a portable EEG in hard to access regions, like Malawi, and this study in Nature Reports exploring using Muse in emergency rooms for rapid stroke detection. Those kinds of solutions are just in the pilot discovery phase with researchers and far from commercialization, but it’s amazing that the technology is able to do it.

And on the consumer side, what are some of the most common benefits?

On the consumer side, some of the common benefits we hear are reduced stress, better ability to notice when you are worrying and to stop that worry, and more clarity. I had one woman with three kids tell me that after a few weeks of using Muse she was driving, and all of a sudden noticed that it was wonderfully quiet in her head. The constant dialogue that’s always going had quieted down, and what a relief that was.

On the sleep side, people report falling asleep faster, waking up less frequently in the night, and being able to fall back asleep faster if they do need to wake in the night for some reason. It’s been amazing. Western University recently completed a research study of Muse’s sleep program with about 150 participants, and they found the same benefits of people using Muse to sleep. It’s really a game changer, considering how big an issue sleep is.

Some people are a bit scared about using a headband that tracks their brain activity. What do you usually tell them?

EEG has been used in hospitals and research institutions for nearly a century to study the brain, and that’s the same technology we use. Unlike some other products, Muse does not use electrical stimulation — it’s a passive tool that gives you accurate, real-time feedback on what’s happening in your brain. If anyone has more questions, we have a comprehensive FAQ archive that explains exactly how the headbands work.

Thank you! What’s next for Muse?

We’re very excited by how we can help improve people’s sleep, and how we can create more innovations there. We update our app every few weeks, so users regularly get new features and content. 

We are also always exploring how to deepen the experience of meditation. For example, we just recently released a feature that lets you use Muse along with any content anywhere on your phone. So if you love your Calm meditation, or a meditation on youtube really works for you, you can now get Muse’s real time feedback to help you deepen that experience, right on top of any other content.

Our Research & Development and Product teams are working with meditation teachers as well as scientists and neuroscientists to bridge the gap, and translate the benefits and insights of meditation into tangible, actionable modern day ways to improve your mind, our brain and your quality of life.

Thank you so much for your time, Ariel! Where can people learn more about Muse and give it a try?

I co-host a podcast, Untangle, that gives you insight into the mind and brain and practical processes to improve them. To learn more about our new products or anything else Muse, just head to ChooseMuse.com. You can also stay up to date by following our Twitter and Instagram.