David Christopher Lane, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).
How Technological Augmentation
Will Advance Interior Exploration
David Lane and Andrea Diem-Lane
The future of meditation can be based more on a scientific understanding and less on an outdated mythological one.
I have been practicing meditation now for over fifty years. Yet, it was only last week that I first tried a portable electroencephalogram (EEG) machine to study my brain wave patterns while doing shabd yoga, an ancient technique that focuses on listening to subtle sounds while sitting still. After teaching my Monday class in the Sociology of Religion, my colleague, Dr. Joshua Knapp, from the Psychology Department came to my office and said he wanted me to try MUSE, the popular “Brain Sensing Headband”. It is very simple to use and connects seamlessly with one's smart phone and purportedly records your brain waves in three distinct modes: active, neutral, and calm. After a five-minute session, for instance, which begins with a brief calibration and short introduction, it will produce a brain activity chart, replete with how many minutes were spent calmly, neutrally, or actively. The fun part about the device is that it entices you to become as still as possible, since then a tiny bird sound emerges. Racking up more bird sounds is indicative of how deep you have gone into your meditation.
Although it is a fairly rudimentary device, EEG machines have been used for a long time to study the brain waves of meditators. Ken Wilber has even uploaded a YouTube video of himself sitting in bed using such a gadget. I found Wilber's video highly instructive since it warned me not to take my meditative sojourns via MUSE too seriously, given the relatively crude state of our brain reading technology. Yet, I see great potential in these accessories since they allow for real time analytics and can serve as progressive markers with which meditators can better gauge more precisely what is transpiring during their meditation sittings.
It is not a stretch to imagine that in the not so distant future human gurus can either be replaced or greatly aided by meditation applications that are connected with artificially intelligent agents.
Even with a simple device such as MUSE the feedback loop was instructive and I tried out a few suggestive tests on the machine.
Modern shabd yoga practice (most prominently used in Radhasoami and Sant Mat related groups) employs a three-fold technique: simran (repetition of a name or names [mantra]), dhyan (contemplation the darkness or light or guru's image within), and bhajan (listening to the inner sound).
So in a suggestive beta test, I wanted to see which of these three techniques would elicit the most “bird” chirps (which, I am told, can range from 1 to 59 within a five minute period). My hunch (or should I say hypothesis?) was that bhajan if done successfully would garner the most bird chirps, with simran coming in a close second, and dhyan coming in a distant third. Mystics in this tradition who are regarded as “masters” usually advise meditating between 2 and 3 hours daily, with the majority of the time spent doing simran and dhyan, whereas thirty or so minutes should be done in bhajan exclusively.
For the purposes of my trial runs, I decided to follow MUSE's instruction of doing a short five-minute session at first. In each test I conducted I focused on one technique only. Of course, it goes without saying that my experiments are only suggestive hints and shouldn't be construed as scientific. To the contrary, they merely represent potential avenues for further investigation.
I was a bit surprised, though, when after 15 trials the best results I got were indeed while doing bhajan. Now undoubtedly there can be several reasons for this, including confirmation bias. But this got me to thinking that with portable and relatively cheap EEG machines becoming more widely available, it can allow for widespread testing of various meditational method that are more far ranging than shabd yoga's threefold process. Hatha yoga immediately comes to mind, especially with its emphasis on pranayama (breath restraint), mudras (hand gestures), and asanas (body postures).
But meditational disciplines are not limited to yoga, since the world's religions have developed all sorts of concentrative practices, ranging from Sufi dancing to the Jesus prayer in Christian Orthodox churches. The more widespread these augmented technologies become, we will be able to develop vast databases quantifying which techniques seem to work best and under what circumstances.
Already a number of studies have been conducted using MUSE, but focusing on education not meditation. As the MedTech Boston website explained, “At the University of Victoria and New York University, researchers are using the device to conduct pedagogical neuroscience research by investigating whether educational outcomes can be improved by better understanding students' brain activity. “They roll out Muse in their research projects to 20 or 30 students at a time simultaneously in a classroom,” explains Moffat. “They're looking at different brain states and how they affect learning and whether or not they can improve their teaching methods on the basis of what is engaging to students and when students start to drop off.”
The MUSE research website lists nine examples of ongoing research connected with the brain wave reading headband, including:
Attentional and Affective Consequences of Technology Supported Mindfulness: a Randomised Trial
Dr. Norman Farb's laboratory at the University of Toronto showed that six weeks' regular use of Muse in healthy adults resulted in improvements in attention, as well as reduced somatic symptoms (headaches, pain, discomfort, etc.) on the Brief Symptom Inventory.
Characterizing Population EEG Dynamics throughout Adulthood
A study by researchers at McMaster University involving more than 6000 participants found population-level effects in brain data related to age and gender, giving scientists unparalleled resolution into how EEG brain dynamics change with age.
Novel Speed-of-Learning Effects Detected in Neurofeedback
A study by Dr. Randy McIntosh's lab at the Rotman Research Institute demonstrated previously unreported speed-of-learning effects in MyVirtualDream, a virtual neurofeedback environment powered by Muse. This effect, being subtle, was detectable only using a technology capable of testing a very large number of people (600) in a short time (twelve hours).
Neuroscientists Study Meditation-Related Changes in Brain Performance
Neuroscientists at the University of Victoria and the University of British Columbia use Muse in their field work in Nepal to study the brains of Buddhist monks, who are highly expert meditators, to better understand how training affects the way the brain makes decisions.
Identifying Pain with an Adaptive Brainwave Learning System
Researchers at MIT and Harvard used machine learning to detect and distinguish signals associated with pain when participants wore Muse.
Using Muse to Measure Event-Related Potentials Outside the Lab.
At the University of Victoria, in Canada, scientists are using Muse to measure event-related potentials (ERPs) in cognitive tasks. This research is also being applied to measure changes in decision making in response to fatiguein ER doctors in the Emergency Room.
Identifying Mental States with Machine Learning
Researchers at the University of Memphis and IBM Watson Research Center found that by using machine learning to analyse brainwave signals from Muse, while participants watched different videos, they could determine what type of content (emotional or educational) each participant was seeing.
Vigilance Lapse Identification With Muse
Researchers from McMaster University used EEG machine learning tools to detect lapses in vigilance (sustained attention) state of participants wearing Muse.
Integration of Muse with Virtual Reality
Students, scientists, and makers from around the world use Muse to create engaging and immersive experiences. One great example is PsychicVR, a virtual reality experience powered by Muse, that was created by Judith Amores Fernandez, Pattie Maes, and Xavier Benavides Palos, which won a Fast Company Innovation By Design award.
I suspect that this very last study mentioned, “Integration of Muse with Virtual Reality” will be a game changer in the future since it will allow meditators to be fully immersed into a environment that can potentially capture each of their sensesfrom seeing to hearing to even touching.
I have been beta testing doing meditation in virtual reality with the recently released Oculus Go, a stand-alone VR device, that is extraordinarily simple and easy to use. I have coupled Oculus Go with MUSE, though a bit awkward at first, to see how they may work together and what kind of results they may portend.
Back in the 1950s John Lilly pioneered building deprivation tanks to see how the mind responds when lacking incoming stimuli. He augmented his water-immersed sessions with certain psychotropic drugs and the results were startling. He experientially realized that the mind when deprived of sights and sounds and smells would by itself virtually create a kaleidoscope of wondrous hallucinations. Although Lilly would later begin to believe that such visions were more than passing phantasms, his friend and fellow sojourner, Richard Feynman, the noted Nobel Prize winning physicist, disagreed and became convinced of their illusory nature.
Yogis in the past would often put themselves in isolated environments so as to better focus within during their deep meditations and began to produce a sophisticated phenomenology of what they encountered. One wonders if A.I. connected concentration devices will be able to accelerate the learning curve of would-be meditators who don't follow a guru and don't live in a remote cave or forest and don't ingest psychedelic drugs.
My own preliminary trials and errors in this arena suggest that devices such as MUSE are indeed helpful, even if limited in their present incarnation.
Perhaps in a decade or more we will have a plethora of digital gurus designed to help us turn within and who will be personally aligned with our own self-interests and help us better progress to our desired goals. The future of meditation can be based more on a scientific understanding and less on an outdated mythological one. The Tibetan cave of tomorrow can be constructed instantaneously with a VR and/or AR and each of us can have our own spiritual teachers guiding us, even if they are wearing purely technological garb.
Suggestive Glimpses of Monitoring Levels of Stillness
The following are screen shots illustrating three different outcomes, using differing concentrative techniques. This should not be construed as evidential or scientific in any strict sense, but only reflective of how a portable EEG device, such as MUSE, operates. I have placed them in order of relative successes:
 A number of commentators, however, have pointed out that Wilber (which is not untypical of him) has grossly exaggerated what he could achieve, claiming that he could stop his brain waves at will and that the machine he was using proved such. Yet, a close analysis of the film shows that it is highly doctored, since instead of showing a complete video analysis, it is peppered with “still” screen shots, which is highly misleading (if not downright duplicitous) to say the least.