Need to Relax: There’s a Gadget for That.


iStock photo by Antonio Diaz

    iStock photo by Antonio Diaz

WHETHER YOU PREFER to go through your heart or brain to de-stress, there are gadgets trying to make it easier for you.

For the heart, the emWave Personal Stress Reliever (HeartMath) works like a portable biofeedback device to encourage a smooth heart rate variability (HRV), the interval between consecutive heartbeats that is constantly changing from irregular when stressed to regular and “coherent.”

As you press your thumb on the metal device — about the size and shape of an EZ-pass transponder— the indicator light changes from red to blue to green as your stress diminishes.  Remaining sufficiently de-stressed will produce a consecutive series of green bars, tapping into the competitive natures of some users: one friend, who has several advanced degrees, swears by the emWave.

The emWave can help you “quickly and easily reach a state of high coherence,” according to Julie Strietelmeier, an initially skeptical reporter for The Gadgeteer.

“Coherence” is created by signals sent from the heart to the brain-stem via the vagus nerve, causing alteration in brain function.  For more than 30 years, HRV biofeedback has been used as treatment for disorders including asthma and depression, as well as for performance enhancement.   Heartmath, developer of the emWave, emphasizes that “coherence is not relaxation:” while coherence includes the lower HRV of relaxation, activity in the brain and nervous system is not decreased but rather becomes more harmonic and better synchronized.

Although Strietelmeier personally finds it easy to de-stress by simply taking several deep breaths, she writes that “seeing that green LED has a positive effect that just closing your eyes and breathing deeply does not.”  Responses to her article include: “Trust me — if you are a golfer, try it out!”

(EmWave2 is available from HeartMath as well as from Amazon, starting at $199; less expensive devices provide biofeedback using other measurements including respiratory rhythm and galvanic skin response.)

For the brain, portable biofeedback devices pair smartphone apps with electroencephalography (EEG) headsets — like fitness trackers for the brain, according to an article by Wall Street Journal Technology Editor Michael Hsu.  With growing acceptance that meditation is the great stress reducer, Hsu wanted to find a way to “meditate less but better.”

Among several products, he found the one offering “the most pleasant experience overall” was the Muse:  Four sensors on a headband that goes over the ears measure stress to which the Muse responds by producing sounds, such as ocean waves and rainfall.  “When the app thinks your mind is wandering, the sounds become more turbulent.  Ocean waves roar; rain falls harder,” Hsu writes.

Although he had meditated for years, Hsu found the focused-attention technique assessed by the Muse difficult to master until hearing his “first chirp” of success got competitive juices flowing, and then he wanted to do it over and over — which the manufacturers call “Musing.”  And soon a “greater sense of awareness” spread to his everyday life.  (He also notes that the minute-long initial calibration exercise each time you put on the headset can be annoying.)

Focused attention might sound like mindfulness.  But when Hsu took a more elaborate EEG test at the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School (founded by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who spearheaded the mindfulness movement in the U.S.), he found that the Muse techniques he had used were “completely different” from those required by these EEG sensors.  Instead of focused attention, the U. Mass EEG measured “effortless awareness,” less of an exertion and more of a “letting-go,” as Hsu explains it.

On the other hand, Richard Davidson, founder of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a “dedicated meditator,” told Hsu that he opposes any kind of EEG feedback for meditation training.  Davidson pointed out that meditation in Sanskrit means “familiarization,” referring to one’s increasing familiarity with the nature of one’s own mind — so that focusing on external signals can be a distraction from learning about ourselves and becoming more effective meditators.

We don’t know enough about what brain signals to look for in a meditative state, says Davidson, and so “the effort at this point is absurd.”  Other practiced meditators agree with the criticism that external devices direct attention away from our inner selves.

Even the skeptical concede, however, that using these devices can be an important first step.  Because everyone’s hearts and brains are different, such devices might help precisely those individuals who most need help to relax or focus.

— Mary Carpenter
Mary is the Well-Being editor of MyLittleBird.com. Read more about Mary here.
Her last post was Less Medicine, More Health?

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