At first glance, the brochure for the Muse headset might look more like a religious leaflet than a technology instruction guide. There’s an image of sunlight shining through trees and a message that reads, “Welcome to the Muse Community.”
Muse is a wearable headband that claims to use electroencephalography, or EEG, to measure a user’s brain activity. The company says it can help users meditate by offering real-time feedback on their brain state. Advertising for the device is tailored to adults, but researchers outside of the company want to know if the devices can help calm students down as well—and keep them out of the principal’s office.
To find out, professors at Kansas State University put the headset on a group of students. Their study claims to have seen success—in the form of reduced office referrals. Neuroscientists and school-discipline experts are wary, though, saying a device that captures biometric data raises equity and privacy concerns, and even mindfulness advocates wonder whether such a device is necessary.
Trying the Muse
The Muse headset launched in 2014 out of its Canada-based parent company, Interaxon. The device has tickled the curiosity of techies, yogis and brain-science researchers alike, so I put one on to see what the hype is about.
To get started, a user first downloads the Muse app, which asks for information including email address, age, gender and dominant hand. The app instructs the user to put on the headband and adjust it so the EEG sensors pick up brain electricity as clearly as possible. (The app will notify him or her if headband sensors pick up error readings, which can be caused from even small muscle movements.)
The app relies on a process called neurofeedback, where brain-activity data gathered from the headset informs users whether they are in a relaxed state, or if they should try to refocus their attention. Wearers will hear thunderstorms when their mind races, and the sounds of soft crashing waves or birds if they are calm. The idea is to try to calm the storm, with your mind, to reach a more-relaxed state.
After five minutes of meditating with the headset on, I could see a dashboard of my own brain data. Peaks and troughs represent when I was in a more meditative state, and when my mind was “wandering.” Admittedly, it is nearly impossible to know how much of that reading is accurate. (I felt like my mind was wandering the whole time.) But a soothing voice coming through the app, reminding me to focus on my breathing, did make me feel that the device had at least some calming effect—whether or not that was dictated by my EEG scan.
Pilot and Practice
After hearing about the headset, Tonnie Martinez, an assistant professor in the College of Education at Kansas State University, was curious to know if the headset could also calm down young students, and if mindfulness could reduce the need for disciplinary action in schools.
“This seems like a great opportunity to see if we can provide a way for students to self-monitor and be able to decompress themselves, so to speak,” says Martinez. And she’s not the only researcher to test out Muse. The company lists multiple studies that third parties have completed using the device.
Martinez says she did not initially inform Interaxon about the study, and emphasizes that the KSU research was independent of funding from the company. Instead she purchased headsets off the shelf. (The $250 devices are sold on Amazon or at major retailers like Best Buy.)
The researcher would not disclose which middle school she worked with to conduct the research. She says that because the study involved both students’ biometric data and their disciplinary records, naming the school would violate the terms set by the study’s Institutional Review Board, the “group that has been formally designated to review and monitor biomedical research involving human subjects,” according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Instead, Martinez explained that to carry out the pilot, she worked with the school’s principal, social worker and counselor to select 20 8th graders who had the most office referrals for their grade level. She says that both she and her research assistant were never given the names of the students chosen, and that the school’s administration reached out to the families of the selected students to ask for consent to be a part of the study.
Students enrolled in the pilot were pulled out of their homeroom twice a week to meet with a graduate research assistant from KSU, who would guide them through a short session using the meditation headset and app. The study took place from October 2016 to February 2017.
Martinez believes the results showed an early sign of success: referral numbers for students pulled out of class to use the device dropped from an average of 6.33 office referrals to 1.78. She adds that for a control group of students who did not use the headset but had a history of office referrals, incidences of discipline either remained the same or increased.
The team at KSU has submitted their paper to the Research in Middle Level Education Online journal and is currently waiting on a response. In the meantime, the researchers hope that, by spring, they will expand the study across all students—meaning not only those with a history of behavior issues—at the middle school.
Some researchers have qualms about the KSU study, however. Sandra Loo, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California at Los Angeles, says many factors could have influenced the study’s outcomes.
“The kids who are singled out by wearing the headset showed fewer troublesome behaviors, but there are so many reasons that could be,” says Loo. “There are a lot of variables that go into why someone is sent to the office. There isn’t a perfect correlation between behavior and that happening.”
Martinez is aware of those shortcomings in the research. Understanding that referrals can be subject to a teacher’s own bias or behavior, she says “that is definitely a limitation of the study.”
Carlos Zalaquett, a professor of education at Penn State, is optimistic about mindfulness’ effect on overall wellbeing. But he is skeptical about the headset because the company keeps its neurofeedback algorithm private.
“Muse, like any other system, has their own algorithm and their own way to interpret brainwaves,” says Zalaquett, who claims he has asked to see the algorithm for his own research. But the company would not share it. He notes that lack of transparency “makes it difficult for researchers to figure out what is the best way to measure the [device’s] effects.”
Zalaquett believes that the device can help some users relax, but without being able to see the algorithm that Muse uses to collect brain data, that result might just be a placebo effect. He asks: “If I show you peaceful pictures and movies and that calms you down, is that because I changed your brainwaves or I changed your emotions?”
Zalaquett also points out that other companies have set out to make similar headsets that claim to offer neurofeedback, and for many of them, evidence is still contested about the technology’s accuracy. “For all of the EEG headsets,” Zalaquett says, “we still need much more evidence to really determine the real effects.”
EdSurge recently wrote about concerns that have been raised about one of these companies, called BrainCo, which has plans to use student EEG information to create “the world’s biggest brainwave database.” On top of privacy concerns, researchers said there is little scientific evidence to support the technology’s claims. Plus, experts said without professional supervision, EEG headsets are subject to misreadings, misinterpretations of data, or otherwise overlooking natural differences in the brain activity of children.
Loo notes there are several neuroscientists seriously examining the effects of mindfulness on the brain, and some studies have also used EEG. But she says many of those studies look at adult populations, and several of her concerns with BrainCo hold true for Muse as well.
“If we are talking about developmental stage of the kids, changes in the brain are so dynamic all the way to early adulthood,” says Loo, who is part of the mindfulness research group at UCLA.
A Mindful Debate
Despite his concerns about the technology, Zalaquett is also optimistic about the use of mindfulness exercises in the classroom. “Mindfulness does have an amount of research behind it that clearly indicates a positive intervention at many levels,” he says. Other studies have suggested that meditation can reduce stress and anxiety levels, and using mindfulness in schools has grown from a religious practice to a mainstream buzzword these days.
In fact, an entire group has formed around teaching and promoting mindfulness in classrooms. California-based nonprofit Mindful Schools offers trainings for teachers to use mindfulness in their own lives and with students.
“Mindfulness is the foundation,” says Robert Thomas, director of Mindful Schools. “If you’re a teacher of students you have to be able to regulate your emotions and work with your mind. That makes you ready to be fully present.”
Positive effects of mindfulness in young people are still up for debate, however. A study recently detailed in Scientific American looked at teens who suffered from anxiety and depression, and found “there was no evidence of any benefit” for teens who practiced mindfulness.
Others point out that mindfulness, which has its roots in Buddhist beliefs and practices, has ballooned into a billion-dollar industry that appropriates the traditions it bases itself upon.
Even Thomas, an adamant supporter of mindfulness who says that at least 25,000 teachers have taken courses through his nonprofit, is hesitant about strapping a headset on students to help them calm down. He is open to new approaches to “help people get feedback when they are trying to balance their emotional system,” but worries that headsets like Muse could short-circuit the difficult process of learning to cope with stress and emotions, especially for developing children.
“I appreciate the basic human learning that is required when we adopt a practice,” says Thomas. “I just don’t know if I trust skipping over the difficulty of having to work with our emotions and how we express ourselves.”
Issues in Discipline
Julie Shackford-Bradley, co-founder of the Restorative Justice Center at UC Berkeley, has similar concerns. Restorative justice is an approach to harm reduction that emphasizes community building and collaboration between parties involved in a conflict. She says mindfulness is “at the crux of everything” in the restorative justice practices she oversees, but worries that data collected by a headset might have unintended consequences when the devices are used on students with behavior issues, as in the KSU study.
“If I were a teacher, I wouldn’t know how to interpret this,” says Shackford-Bradley. “People looking at [the app] might think they are learning about a person, but it could be invalid data.”
Shackford-Bradley adds that race and gender could have implications on how the data is interpreted. Data collected by the U.S. Department of Education shows black students are suspended nearly three times (16 percent) the rate of white students (5 percent). In addition, students with learning disabilities are more than twice as likely to be suspended (13 percent) compared with students without disabilities (6 percent).
Other discipline experts said the device could also run the risk of further stigmatizing students who already receive extra attention, and lose class time, for acting out.
Muse in More Schools
KSU isn’t the only school taking a look at Muse in a middle school setting. At San Francisco’s Millennium School, a middle school with roots in developmental and neuroscience, research with the device is also underway.
Jeff Snipes, a co-founder of the school, explains that in a class called “Life, Learning and Leadership,” students work on lessons that involve the headsets. In addition to using the device to promote meditation, the lessons involve learning about brain function. For instance, a student would use the app to see and record what brainwaves are being activated while wearing the device.
Similar to the KSU study, Millennium is also sharing data collected from the headsets with university researchers. The school has a partnership with the University of California at San Francisco’s Neuroscape lab, and Snipes says aggregate data gathered from the headset lessons are shared for research.
“All of that research and data is captured and stored,” says Snipes, who is on the board of Mindful Schools. “Across all of our neuroscience efforts, we collect data and Muse is one piece of the programs of which this is another piece of the programs.”
Snipes says all parents are given the option to opt out if they do not want their students to be a part of the studies. But he isn’t aware of any data sunset policies that would prevent brain-wave information from being mapped onto student identities. And when asked about agreements with Interaxon, which also has high-level view of aggregate data from headset users, the co-founder says “I don’t know the answer to whether or not or how much we provide.”
Those kinds of ambiguities around privacy have skeptics on edge about EEG headsets like the Muse, because technically, there’s nothing stopping a teacher or school from purchasing the headset and using it with students. Meanwhile, other companies are building their own data dashboards to capture and show information from the Muse headset.
“A company is not necessarily subject to student-data privacy laws merely because its product happens to be used in a school. Most of the laws apply to operators whose site or services are used ‘primarily for K-12 purposes’ or are ‘designed and marketed for K-12 purposes,’” Tabatabai wrote in an email. “If a school buys a general audience product and uses it in the classroom, the school bears responsibility for protecting any student data it permits this product to collect.”
Regardless of their stance on the effectiveness of mindfulness exercises for children, many of the researchers and experts EdSurge spoke with questioned the long-term impacts of correlating student brainwave data with disciplinary action.
The KSU study “may have anecdotal evidence, but even good successes do not mean that technique or approach will work with everybody,” says Zalaquett. “It has a lot of possibilities, but I cannot say that it really works.”