Does the MindWave Headset Work?

MindWave is the name of a headset from Neurosky that promises to take brain training to the next level. It looks like something out of a science fiction film and when you learn what it’s supposed to actually do it only becomes more futuristic.

Essentially, the idea behind the MindWave headset is to record brain activity through EEG (electroencephalograph) sensors. Specifically this monitors electrical activity, which suggests communication between neurons. More activity means more communication, means more brain activity. In the past, the only way you’d get to have a go on an EEG was if you were visiting a hospital or perhaps taking part in a scientific study. For the first time, the MindWave makes this technology accessible for the general public.

MindWave for Meditation

MindWave works by connecting to your computer to display your brain activity and this allows it to work with a number of different apps. The majority of these encourage you either to ‘focus’ on something or to try and calm your thoughts, giving you immediate visual rewards for doing either successfully.

Essentially then, this boils down to meditation. Meditation is essentially the practice of controlling your own thought patterns in order to be able to direct your attention, to be able to calm your thoughts and to be able to muse on ideas in depth. There are many different types of meditation, but all of them boil down to practicing control of your thoughts and can improve IQ (1) as well as attention (2). You don’t need a MindWave to try meditation, but what it will give you is a form of ‘biofeedback’ that helps you to see whether you’re doing well and that helps you to improve your skills as a result. It also makes meditation a little more fun and a little more accessible for those who perhaps would otherwise be put off or find it daunting. It’s like a Trojan horse and if it gets more people into meditation, then that’s great.

Other Uses for MindWave

Beyond this, MindWave also has a range of other apps that range from fun ways to pass the time to rather ambitious brain training tools.

One example of a ‘fun’ application of MindWave, is a music player that changes the tracks dependent on your mood – which is cute in theory but pretty arbitrary in reality. Another is an app that allows you to control a remote controlled helicopter through concentration alone. Don’t be fooled into thinking that means you can fly around the room though – you can basically just make it go up or not go up… but it’s a fun trick at parties.

More ambitious is ‘Brain Athlete’, which is an app that supposedly measures your brain waves through a range of sports activities. The idea is that you’ll wear this thing while you take a golf swing, or perhaps while you do a workout, and that it will then tell you where and when you had lapses in concentration.

The idea is that these lapses in concentration will correlate with flaws in your technique and thus that you will be able to refine your technique by using the app to monitor where your concentration falters. Unfortunately, this is almost certainly BS… For starters, it’s unlikely that anyone is going to want to wear a headset while they work out… I’m not even sure it’s possible. For seconds, concentration on a particular movement or exercise is not going to necessarily correlate with technique or performance. This is something that’s almost impossible to measure and this one falls firmly in the category of ‘gimmick’.

Limitations

The limitations of something like MindWave lie in the limitations of EEG in general. All EEG does is to measure electrical activity throughout the brain. It can’t tell you which part of the brain is working, it can’t tell you how well it’s working… it just tells you what degree of ‘on’ or ‘off’ it is.

Thus there’s no way that MindWave could help you – for example – to become better at maths. Ditto, it wouldn’t be particularly useful in helping you to boost your memory. And while it might claim otherwise, there’s actually no way it can differentiate between concentration and say, nervousness.

How can you be sure this is a limitation? Well, actually, EEG is also what’s used by polygraph machines – lie detectors – and even the very best of these can’t tell when you’re lying versus when you’re just nervous. The only way a polygraph can ever be close to accurate, is by combining readings from the EEG with smart interview techniques and recording devices designed to pick up micro-expressions etc. With MindWave, you’re getting a very cheap and basic version of an EEG machine, so it’s hardly even going to be as accurate or as insightful as a polygraph.

This is also why an app that changes music depending on readings from the MindWave would be a bit of fun at best. While it might be able to tell when you’re very relaxed (due to slower brainwaves), it wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between excitement and anxiety and it certainly wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between happiness and sadness.

Versus EPOC

It’s also worth noting now that MindWave is only one option when it comes to brainwave-reading technology. An alternative choice is EPOC from Emotiv. These are similarly priced, with the main difference being the one ‘dry’ sensor on MindWave, versus the 14 ‘wet’ sensors (meaning you have to get them damp for them to work) on the EPOC. EPOC can also measure head rotation… cool!

Which is better? According to the reviews, the difference is negligible with both offering similar levels of sensitivity and performance. The only real differentiator then, is the ease of use and practicality – which is where MindWave comes up trumps. For this reason, MindWave also has better support in terms of apps, making this the better choice.

Conclusions

To conclude then, MindWave is a great and interesting product if you want biofeedback for meditation. It’s a smart way of getting more people interested in meditation and through this, it may be able to help improve concentration, IQ and mood.

On the other hand, it’s not the futuristic high-tech device that will let you control computer games with your thoughts alone and nor is it a ground breaking brain-training tool that will give you a major boost in your memory or creativity.

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