A Crystal Ball for Meditators?
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A popular brand of consumer EEG headbands claims to be able to detect meditation from the user’s brainwave pattern, and send a signal to your cell phone with the score from 1–100. The invention described in this paper links together the headband with a wireless light bulb. The invention should show a meaningful pattern of flashes of light. Instead only random noise is detected. The author explores possible reasons why.
KeywordsEEG (electroencephalography) Biofeedback Meditation
Several years ago I first had the idea: by combining consumer electronics, I could make a crystal ball that glows when you meditate. Hadn’t the EEG headband I saw advertised say that it could detect meditation? Combined with a wireless light bulb and some iPhone coding, the crystal ball would be a reality.
Several hundred dollars and dozen man-hours later, I was left with an app on my iPhone which could, in effect, make my overhead light flicker on and off at random. It was supposed to flicker according to my meditation level, but I had neglected to test the basic validity of the eSense meditation meter before building a crystal ball that works based on its data.
The problem may be that no meditation experts have tried the machine, and this produces results in the meter that are all over the place; but I could get no valid results out of it for myself and my parents. Not only that, but the eSense attention meter was likewise all over the place, though it is the one supposed to be easiest to control.
For those that are not familiar with the principles of EEG, the scalp has a tiny electrical current which peaks and falls between 1–100 Hz (times per second). It is relatively easy to tell if someone is awake or sleeping by the number of Hz observed at their scalp. Brain researchers invited to Tibet by the Dalai Lama have claimed to see a similar phenomenon in those who are experienced at meditating vs. unskilled meditators (Davidson 2008). Among the characteristic qualities exposed by the masters were “higher-amplitude sustained gamma band oscillations”1 and “long-distance phase synchrony” between different places on the scalp.
Is the problem that only a true master is able to command the crystal ball, and everyone else gets results that are all over the place? My hypothesis in this paper is that our lack of expertise in meditation was not the limiting factor, and that similar random readings would be seen no matter who was wearing the headband. Thus I predict that if I am able to experiment as a poster presenter at the conference, nobody will be able to control the eSense meter to give consistent, bright readings from the top of the scale that light up the crystal ball for sustained periods of time.
There are several possible explanations that show why meditation could be so clearly demarcated for researchers in Tibet, and yet so vague for EEG headband users here. One involves the superiority of using human EEG operators to identify meditation patterns in different subjects. The Neurosky chip is an automated brainwave scanner.
Also, traditional EEG uses 19 sensors to pick up readings from all over the scalp, while the headband just uses one contact point. Therefore, while it may be possible to repeat this experiment with a full EEG machine plus human operator, the derived eSense meters of the miniaturized EEG headband give equivocal results.
Neurosky Mindwave Mobile, e.g. Brainwave Starter Kit ($130)
Philips Hue Personal Wireless Lighting, e.g. Starter Pack with hub and 3 lights, #431643 ($200).
[Two lights will be used for showing eSense attention meter and eSense meditation meter values in % of maximum brightness.]
An internet router, e.g. Apple Time Capsule #A1355 ($50)
A developer’s subscription with Apple ($99/year)
The library file libTGAccessory.a was copied over from the Neurosky demo project and linked
PHControlLightsViewController.m has new functions copied over from the Neurosky demo project, including dataRecieved, where the brightness level of the wireless light bulb is set, and accessoryDidConnect, where the TGAccessoryManager is set up that calls dataRecieved
A zip file of the modified Apple Xcode project is posted at http://www.picatino.com/eeg/. To make edits, you’ll need a Macintosh computer with the latest OS. In addition, an Apple developer’s subscription is necessary to be able to bypass the App Store and install custom apps on your iPhone.
The next step seems to be devising some scientific way to see if Neurosky’s idea of meditation has anything in common with either the Dalai Lama results described above or the user’s feelings.
My first impulse was to propose that test subjects push a button when they sense in themselves heightened levels of either “attention” or “meditation.” If the eSense readings were positively correlated, negatively correlated, or completely uncorrelated to their perception of reality, this would yield results of some kind. This test might not be possible in people who are experiencing meditation, however, since the act of pressing the button might break the trance.
A more physiological test would be to backstop the Mindwave Mobile with perhaps a pulsemeter to count when the subject’s heartbeat drops below a threshold, and if that is correlated with higher meditation readings on the EEG headset it would serve as partial proof that at least something was going on.
I would like to do a lie-detector test at the same time as getting readout for attention or meditation. That way you would get a readout of how false you felt the eSense to be, moment by moment. It would also be useful to give the Mindwave Mobile to an expert meditator and see if they can produce any change in readings.
The obvious question is now to ask if not Neurosky, can someone else make a headset that detects meditation? The answer is yes, and especially if the person who is meditating is a Buddhist master who has practiced for a long time. But a crystal ball that works for only 1 % of the population is harder to justify buying.
Gamma band is 25–100 Hz, most typically at 40.
- Davidson, R.J., Lutz, A.: Buddha’s brain: neuroplasticity and meditation. IEEE Signal Process. Mag. 25(1), 174–176 (2008). http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2944261/CrossRefGoogle Scholar