A generation ago, meditation was known in the West as a habit of weird aunts with crystal collections and something mystic extolled by Master Splinter. Now, the age-old practice of sitting attentively and trying to clear the mind is a full-blown health trend with proven benefits.
Mindfulness gurus like Thich Nhat Hanh and Pema Chödrön are best-selling authors. At least 2,773 studies with mediation and mindfulness as keywords were published last year. The expanding medical literature has shown meditation to be beneficial for blood pressure, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic pain, anxiety, depression, insomnia and more. Meditation classes have been brought to grade schools and prisons and meditation has breached corporate cultures, embraced by executives at long-lived institutions like Ford Motor Company and new tech powerhouses like SalesForce.
For an age of increased stress, demands for higher performance at work and wariness of prescription drug overuse, meditation seems like a panacea, and Americans are taking to it. In 2017, 14.2 percent of U.S. adults meditated, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control, a leap from 4 percent in 2012.
And of course, there is an app for that. Meditation apps like Calm, Insight Timer, Simple Habit and Unplug have tips, techniques and libraries of guided meditations. The Coca Cola of that industry, Headspace, boasts 45 million downloads and 1 million paid subscribers.
Some tech companies are hoping that serious meditators will go a step further. In the last five years, a small market has arisen for meditation assistance devices. Using different approaches and pre-existing scientific findings, they promise to augment an ancient practice with a new gadget.
The Core Meditation Trainer ($229) is an apple-sized vibrating device designed to be held and serve as an “anchor” during mediation sessions. Hold it close to the chest and it can also measure heart and heartrate variability for a look at how calm one stayed while meditating.
The Muse ($220 to $370 for various models) is a headband implanted with electrodes to create a biofeedback system. Pair it with earbuds and hear nature sounds as you meditate. With the capacity to measure concentration, the device makes the noises more boisterous as you lose focus and more placid as you gain it. The menu of sound patterns includes desert wind, forest, beach waves and others.
“With Muse, you are getting real-time feedback on your headspace,” said Ariel Gartner, co-founder and “chief evangelist officer. “Muse acts as a mirror reflecting your progress.”
The company said it has accumulated 400,000 users since its launch in 2014.
The Zendo ($299 for a starter kit) sends a small electrical current to targeted areas of the brain, via a pad that sticks to the forehead and is attached to an electronic device. The product, introduced in July, uses transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), described by John Hopkins Medicine literature as an “experimental form of brain stimulation that “may be a valuable tool for the treatment of neuropsychiatric conditions.”
“It’s not causing the neurons to fire but acting in the activation thresholds that makes it easier for them to flow,” said Zendo co-inventor Bashar Badran PhD.
The device was spun out of research conducted by Badran and his co-founder Baron Short, MD at the Medical University of South Carolina’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences in the mid-2010s. (Both are still on the school’s faculty.)
Users feel a tingling sensation after they apply it and meditate for 20-minute sessions. Badran said it has gotten a positive response when offered at mediation retreats and in these early days his company is initially marketing it to baseball players interested in sharpening their performance.
The BrainTap headset ($647) represents a final endgame of what a mindfulness electronic device can accomplish. Its creators say it uses audio and visual stimuli to create the effect of meditation without the effort. “It’s for people who don’t want to meditate but they want the benefits of meditation,” said creator Patrick K. Porter, PhD, a psychologist. The company doesn’t even use the verb meditate for the action it facilitates; it uses the self-defined “brain-tapping.”
The device looks like a pair of plastic earmuffs with a visor marked by the company’s logo. It shoots LED light patterns into the user’s closed eyes. In addition to the voice-guided meditation, tones of various frequencies and intervals pulsate through the earphones. Porter claims the cumulative effect is like that of meditation, clearing and optimizing the brain for better moods, improved sleep and healthier habits.
It may seem far-out — or too good and too flashy to be authentic — but the technique behind the BrainTap, audio–visual entrainment (AVE), has been studied since the 1940s and shown efficiency in treating a slew of cognitive and psychological issues, including depression, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, cognitive decline, the effects of concussions and post-traumatic stress disorder. AVE has also generally boosted moods and performance at mentally taxing tasks.
Porter said he has been studying AVE since 1986 and improvements in audio and visual personal technology have allowed for improvements in the application of AVE. He invented the program and headset for the treatment of autistic children. “It can help someone who has trouble taking verbal instructions,” he said.
It was released in 2013 for therapists of people on the spectrum and has been in use at 300 clinics.
Because one doesn’t need to be a doctor to operate it, Porter’s company, also called BrainTap, put the device for sale to the general public in 2019. At the same time, they launched an app that offers some of the experience of the headset, done via smart or phone tablet and headphones. He said the most common usage for both is help with insomnia.
The $647 price tag makes the BrainTap headset out of reach for many. A problem for meditation technology is that the market is niche so it is difficult to manufacture, market and sell at a scale that will lower prices.
But with interest in meditation growing every year, makers hope for an era when mindfulness devices can be as affordable and as common as Fitbits.
Nick Keppler is a freelance journalist, writer and editor. He enjoys writing the difficult stories, the ones that make him pore over studies, talk about subjects that make people uncomfortable, and explain concepts that have taken years to develop. Nick has written extensively about psychology, healthcare, and public policy for national publications and for those locally- based in Pittsburgh. In addition to Athletech News, Nick has written for The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, Vice, Slate, Reuters, CityLab, Men’s Health, The Gizmodo Media Group, The Financial Times, Mental Floss, The Village Voice and AlterNet. His journalistic heroes include Jon Ronson, Jon Krakauer and Norah Vincent.