The ancient practices of meditation, expressed through manuscripts and living traditions, have never stood still. The techniques and customs surrounding numerous approaches to meditation whether Vedic, Yogic or Buddhist have evolved, often in dialectic fashion, with each other. Developments and adjustments abound over thousands of years of insight and experimentation. The art of silencing the mind, finding clarity or connecting with deeper or higher states of consciousness continues to change even though in essence the purpose remains the same.
Biofeedback and Brainwaves
What is the purpose of biofeedback? The traditions teach us how to sit, concentrate, eat and abide in appropriate ways conducive to meditation. We learn to observe our breath, sensations, mental formations, clarify the senses with the intention of delving deeper within our Self. It is here where the biofeedback begins – recognising the quality of breath, sensation, tension and mental formations acts as an intuitive barometer with which to work towards deeper states and understanding. This requires education, skill and practice and is imparted from teacher to student.
Enter the world of biometrics, digital biofeedback and biohacking. Electroencephalograms (EEG) were first invented in 1924 by Hans Berger(1) for reading brainwaves (electrical pulses emitted by neurons). With the aid of EEG headsets we are now able to receive immediate biofeedback of brainwave activity during a meditation session. A Muse portable EEG headset interprets raw brainwave data and gives feedback through live soundscapes (2). For example, in the Tropical setting, an overactive wandering mind is translated as rain and a calm mind produces bird sounds. This feedback allows the user to actively adjust their mental state to alter the feedback. It also produces a simple graph to show moments of focus and distraction. With practice this ability to adjust becomes more natural and the Muse app provides encouragement and motivation through rewards and setting new targets.
Mental states, understood subjectively, form an inner experience that may be expressed as thoughts and feelings. Alternatively, brainwaves, alpha, beta, delta, theta and gamma, can be objectively measured and are associated with specific mental states. (3) For example, alpha waves will dominate during a calm, relaxed state of mind while beta waves will dominate during problem solving and decision-making, and theta waves are more active during deep sleep and meditative states. (4) Of course this is a simplification as all brainwaves are present in any given moment and each part of the brain may have differing levels of each brainwave type. (5)
Established meditators are often accustomed to natural biofeedback (breath, posture, mental formations) with an ability to correct the quality of their attention accordingly but may also be surprised by the results. We’ve tested the device on people here at Samahita and even regular practitioners have received unbalanced results. This is where the EEG headset is useful, responding to feedback and adjusting one’s attention appropriately is a skill that may be developed through regular use.