It was a Monday morning, which was crushed capable to meditate. I was anxious astir the time ahead, and so, arsenic I’ve done countless times implicit the past fewer years, I settled successful connected my sofa for a abbreviated meditation session. But thing was antithetic this morning.
Gently squeezing my forehead was a high-tech meditation headset, outfitted with sensors that would work my encephalon waves to archer maine erstwhile I was calm and erstwhile I was, well, me. Beside me, my telephone was moving an app that paired implicit Bluetooth with the headset. It would springiness maine audio feedback connected my brain’s show successful existent time, past people maine with points and awards.
This was the Muse headband, an innovation successful mindfulness that picks up connected Silicon Valley’s penchant for quantifying each facet of ourselves done wearable tech — the thought being that the much information you person connected your encephalon waves, bosom rate, sleep, and different bodily functions, the much you tin optimize the instrumentality that is you. But a thought nagged astatine me: Isn’t determination thing self-defeating and contradictory astir trying to optimize meditation by making it each astir achieving occurrence successful a gamified app?
The underlying exertion is decidedly intriguing. Muse is an exertion of neurofeedback, a instrumentality for grooming yourself to modulate your encephalon waves. Neurofeedback began gaining popularity years agone successful objective contexts, arsenic research showed it had the imaginable to assistance radical struggling with conditions similar ADHD and PTSD.
Muse is one of several companies now selling neurofeedback devices with a antithetic aim: making you a much enlightened mentation of yourself. At $245 a pop, its headbands are already accessible to consumers astatine stores similar Walmart oregon Best Buy.
In fact, neurofeedback is conscionable 1 of the newer technologies being touted arsenic a mode to catapult america into higher, much enlightened states of consciousness. Other technoboosts see encephalon stimulation, which uses electrical currents oregon different means to straight people definite encephalon areas and alteration their behavior, and synthetic psychedelics, which are lab-created versions of drugs specified arsenic ayahuasca. Collectively, they signifier a genre that Kate Stockly and Wesley Wildman, researchers astatine Boston University’s Center for Mind and Culture, telephone “spirit tech.”
Like me, the researchers started retired skeptical of these technologies. But they grew fascinated arsenic they began exploring large questions: Can we usage tech to provoke experiences that volition marque radical lastingly much compassionate and altruistic? Is an acquisition of enlightenment that’s induced by exertion “authentic” (and does that matter)? If we democratize spiritual insights truthful they go accessible faster to tons much radical — not conscionable those of america who tin spend to walk decades meditating successful a cave determination — tin that assistance our taxon evolve?
These questions, and the shifting answers to them, hint astatine the unusual caller terrain we are wandering onto, arsenic neuroscience, self-optimization tech, and mindfulness collide.
The committedness of neurofeedback, encephalon stimulation, and synthetic psychedelics
The antithetic varieties of tone tech — neurofeedback, encephalon stimulation, and synthetic psychedelics astir prominently — each person the aforesaid wide nonsubjective of abetting a person’s hunt for a higher authorities of consciousness. But they each person their chiseled ways of getting you there.
Neurofeedback devices for meditation purpose to assistance you get into a authorities of calm, focused attraction by tracking your encephalon enactment and producing guiding sounds to fto you cognize erstwhile your caput is wandering.
There are a fewer antithetic ways this tin work, but I’ll instrumentality to Muse for illustration’s sake. You commencement by placing a headband connected your forehead. Its built-in EEG sensors work your encephalon waves arsenic you meditate. Some encephalon waves are associated with focused attraction and others are associated with mind-wandering and stress; Muse’s algorithm picks them apart successful existent clip and offers up a antithetic cue connected the telephone app depending connected what your caput is doing.
When your thoughts are racing, you perceive large rainstorms. “That’s your cue to go, like, ‘Oh shit! I’m reasoning astir the market database again! Back to meditation!’” Ariel Garten, the co-founder of Muse, told me.
When your thoughts are calmer, you perceive quieter weather. And erstwhile you negociate to prolong a heavy calm for a while, you perceive the rewarding dependable of birds chirping.
It’s a classical “Pavlovian-type reinforcement,” according to Garten, meant to promote your encephalon to retrieve the consciousness of this tranquil intelligence authorities and instrumentality to it implicit and over. It’s besides (for amended oregon worse) an ego boost. When the Muse app shows you your stats astatine the extremity of a session, you mightiness find yourself thinking: “I’m crushing this. I got 5 birds!”
Some technological research indicates that neurofeedback tin modestly amended attraction and subjective well-being. But it’s important to enactment that this benignant of tech can, astatine most, assistance radical get to an “entry-level” authorities of meditation — what you mightiness call, simply, concentration. Researchers bash not assertion to person figured retired however to pb radical into much precocious meditative states yet.
Stockly, who tried neurofeedback herself arsenic portion of her probe for Spirit Tech, the publication she co-wrote with Wildman, told maine the exertion holds committedness arsenic a mode to shorten people’s meditation learning curve. “I could archer erstwhile my encephalon was doing the close happening due to the fact that I would perceive the dependable that was expected to beryllium the affirmative feedback,” she said. She besides told maine neurofeedback is conscionable the extremity of the iceberg. “It could beryllium understood arsenic a starter exertion connected your mode to thing a small spot much invasive, similar encephalon stimulation.”
If neurofeedback devices similar Muse lone purpose to “read” what’s happening successful your encephalon and springiness you cues that bespeak it, past different technique, encephalon stimulation, aims to “write” to the encephalon — that is, to straight alteration what your neurons are up to.
Here’s the basal idea: Different states of consciousness manifest successful your encephalon arsenic antithetic patterns of electrical activity, oregon neurological signatures. Researchers person already figured retired what immoderate of them look like. Now, they’re figuring retired however to technologically stimulate your encephalon into those states. They’re experimenting with a fewer types of stimulation — electric, magnetic, light, and ultrasound — to people peculiar encephalon areas.
Shooting energy into your skull mightiness dependable painful, but it tin beryllium precise gentle. There are already a fewer neurostimulation devices connected the market, similar Zendo, which travel successful the signifier of tiny pads oregon patches that you use to your forehead; they make a tingly sensation arsenic they nonstop debased levels of energy into your brain. They assertion to marque meditation easier and trim stress.
The technological grounds connected their efficacy is mixed. Safety-wise, they’re not required to person FDA support since they’re not marketed arsenic aesculapian devices, but they’re mostly considered low-risk for short-term usage fixed that a fig of stimulation methods are already approved for objective usage successful treating conditions similar depression. However, we deficiency information connected the semipermanent effects of utilizing neurostimulation devices continually.
Meanwhile, immoderate researchers are pursuing a overmuch much ambitious extremity than specified accent reduction. They’re exploring encephalon stimulation’s imaginable to enactment arsenic a shortcut to enlightenment.
Evan Thompson, a University of British Columbia prof who specializes successful Asian philosophical traditions, notes that it’s inaccurate to speech astir “enlightenment” arsenic if it’s 1 monolithic thing. Instead, we person to speech astir circumstantial enlightened states. “Enlightenment means antithetic things to antithetic teachers, schools, and humanities periods,” helium said. It tin mean the elimination of each craving and attachment, for example, oregon the dissolution of the consciousness of a abstracted self.
The second is peculiarly applicable to Shinzen Young and Jay Sanguinetti, co-directors of the Sonication Enhanced Mindful Awareness (SEMA) laboratory astatine the University of Arizona. They’ve recovered that beaming ultrasound pulses astatine a definite encephalon area, the basal ganglia, leads to a quieting of the ego — a little self-focused authorities of mind.
Young, a monk who’s been meditating for 50 years, fto his neuroscientist workfellow Sanguinetti administer the ultrasound pulses connected him. Afterward, helium said it accelerated and deepened his quality to participate a authorities of equanimity and selflessness. In fact, helium said it triggered 1 of the astir important meditations he’s ever had. Twelve different precocious meditators aboriginal reported akin effects.
Of course, that’s not capable to get a consciousness of whether it’s genuinely harmless and effective, particularly for semipermanent use. There’s inactive a batch much information and efficacy probe to beryllium done earlier encephalon stimulation utilizing ultrasound volition beryllium disposable extracurricular of specialized labs.
“It’s not a user instrumentality bundle successful Best Buy,” Garten said. “It’s far, far, acold from being that. Probably 20 oregon 30 much years.”
In the meantime, different researchers are exploring psychedelics, which are undergoing a renaissance these days arsenic their therapeutic imaginable for treating conditions similar depression becomes progressively recognized.
Many psychedelics, specified arsenic magic mushrooms and mescaline, are people occurring. But scientists are present engaged creating synthetic versions of drugs, similar pharmahuasca (synthetic ayahuasca), truthful the chemic components tin beryllium precisely predicted and customized. These drugs don’t conscionable “read” what’s happening successful the brain; similar neurostimulation, they “write” to it directly.
Scientists person found that psychedelics tin produce mystical experiences that pb to lasting changes successful tolerance and openness. One study recovered that regular users of ayahuasca, for example, people higher than nonusers connected measures of self-transcendence. Pharmahuasca has produced precise akin effects, though research suggests immoderate of the affectional benefits of accepted ayahuasca rituals whitethorn beryllium mislaid erstwhile the cause is consumed extracurricular its ceremonial context, possibly due to the fact that the intentions of the users are different.
Although immoderate intelligence wellness professionals already usage synthetic psychedelics successful their objective practices to dainty patients, don’t expect to spot specified substances becoming legally disposable for self-directed usage arsenic tone tech successful the US anytime soon. Currently, Americans who privation to legally effort a cause similar ayahuasca (natural oregon synthetic) person to beryllium members of circumstantial spiritual communities specified arsenic the Native American Church, oregon other question to South America. That said, Wildman and Stockly study that determination is an progressive underground marketplace for synthetic psychedelics similar pharmahuasca.
Are tech-induced spiritual experiences “authentic”? That’s the incorrect question.
When radical archetypal perceive astir technoboosts for enlightenment, there’s a inclination to deliberation that utilizing exertion to induce spiritual experiences is simply a wholly caller improvement — and that truthful a tech-induced acquisition is not “authentic” spirituality.
Thompson says some those premises are wrong. For 1 thing, radical person been utilizing tech to induce altered states of consciousness for millennia. We whitethorn not beryllium utilized to reasoning of tools similar supplication wheels, mandalas, rosaries, oregon rhythmic drumming successful shamanic dances arsenic spiritual technologies, but that’s precisely what they are.
Plus, Thompson told me, “I deliberation authenticity is simply a precise misleading concept.”
Historically, there’s nary consensus, adjacent wrong a azygous spiritual tradition, astir however to archer a genuine spiritual epiphany from a counterfeit.
Some judge a spiritual acquisition indispensable beryllium spontaneous to beryllium authentic. Others judge conscionable the other — that an authentic acquisition comes astir lone aft idiosyncratic spends tons of clip and effort processing a practice.
As Stockly and Wildman constitute successful Spirit Tech, “Some radical consciousness that it conscionable can’t beryllium close that spiritual contented and experiences that are incredibly hard-won are conscionable abruptly conferred connected immoderate aged doofus without the exertion of effort, discipline, and commitment.”
Likewise, immoderate groups accidental a spiritual acquisition is trustworthy if it supports their preexisting, canonical beliefs, and untrustworthy if it produces heterodox beliefs. But others accidental an acquisition is authentic precisely if it transcends normal — conscionable deliberation of however Jesus taught thing caller and antithetic from the Judaism of his time.
Stockly, Wildman, and Thompson each told maine they deliberation it makes little consciousness to look astatine the causes oregon contented of an acquisition than to look astatine its consequences. Another mode to enactment this is: Don’t inquire whether an acquisition is authentic; inquire whether it’s beneficial. Does it marque you much cruel, haughty, and self-centered? Or much compassionate, humble, and other-focused?
A related interest astir immoderate technoboosts is that possibly they lone pb to impermanent changes — altered states, but not altered traits. If their consequences slice distant wrong hours oregon days, however overmuch bully does that truly do?
“It is imaginable conscionable to person experiences that are thing similar transitory highs,” Wildman told me. But they tin incentivize you to make a continuous practice. “These incredibly almighty experiences tin wholly alteration your willingness to instrumentality connected thing similar that.”
Stockly noted that technoboosts similar neurofeedback and encephalon stimulation are not meant to beryllium one-and-done. Instead, we should deliberation of them arsenic grooming wheels for the brain. “The thought is that it truly is targeting the desired portion of the encephalon successful specified a mode that with repeated use, it volition really alteration the brain,” she said. “It volition assistance to make those caller neural pathways.”
Thompson, for his part, worries that specified technoboosts mightiness beryllium counterproductive alternatively than beneficial — if, for example, the mode the exertion mediates the acquisition of meditation reinforces the ego tendencies that meditation is meant to alleviate. This is his interest astir each the gamification the Muse app displays, from telling you erstwhile you’ve achieved a streak of consecutive days to rewarding you with vertebrate chirps erstwhile you’ve stayed calm agelong enough.
“It builds up a consciousness of a performative, palmy self,” helium said. “Like, ‘Oh look, I’ve meditated a 100 days successful a enactment now!’ It’s not lone distraction, it really reinforces precisely the happening that you’re trying to get beyond.”
Garten told maine that this was a plan question she “struggled with a lot.” But ultimately, she thinks you request immoderate gamification to motivate the idiosyncratic to support coming back, astatine slightest astatine first. And adjacent though the birds whitethorn beryllium distracting and ego-inflating initially, she thinks they tin gradually thatch the idiosyncratic an important lesson: equanimity. Get excessively excited astir the quality of a bird, and it vanishes immediately, due to the fact that your excited encephalon authorities means you’ve mislaid the calm that hastened its arrival. In this way, you larn not to get overly invested successful immoderate outcome.
That hasn’t been my acquisition with Muse yet. So far, for me, the birds consciousness similar they’re harming alternatively than helping my practice. But I’ve been meditating for astir 5 years. Conceivably, for a beginner, the motivational benefits of gamification, unneurotic with Muse’s quality to amusement the novice meditator erstwhile they’re “doing it right,” could outweigh the costs.
There’s a little evident hazard we request to carnivore successful mind. Instead of lone asking, “What if the tech doesn’t enactment arsenic advertised?” we besides request to ask, “What if it does?”
On the 1 hand, that would beryllium exciting. In 2005, the Dalai Lama was asked what helium thinks astir the anticipation of tech starring to spiritual awakenings. He said: “If it was imaginable to go escaped of antagonistic emotions by a riskless implementation of an electrode — without impairing quality and the captious caput — I would beryllium the archetypal patient.”
But astir of america bash not person the Dalai Lama’s training. Sudden, aggravated epiphanies that almighty caller exertion similar encephalon stimulation aims to provoke whitethorn not person the affirmative effects you mightiness expect. Normally, radical physique up to those epiphanies implicit years of signifier oregon connected agelong meditation retreats; the gradualness of the learning curve and the beingness of mentors can help a person integrate an epiphany into their self-understanding. Spirit tech wants to connection a shortcut — to gin up epiphanies on-demand and à la carte — and the effects could beryllium jarring.
As Sanguinetti says successful Spirit Tech, “If you’re a begetter and you person 2 children, what does it mean to alteration you [with encephalon stimulation]? Because you inactive request to beryllium capable to instrumentality attraction of your children and beryllium motivated to bash that. So we don’t privation to marque you happy-detached, we privation to marque you happy-embodied and a happy, amended quality being successful your nine and the circumstantial sociocultural discourse that you’re in.”
In accepted spiritual communities, the tone tech isn’t conscionable the meditation you bash oregon the mushroom you ingest. There are mentors and traditions that signifier however you marque meaning retired of a highest acquisition and integrate it into your humdrum beingness — these are technology, too. Similarly, we whitethorn request a cadre of trained radical who tin usher america done the process of implementing almighty caller tools similar encephalon stimulation.
Absent specified a framework, Thompson remains unconvinced of the imaginable of specified technologies.
“It strikes maine arsenic much consumerist, capitalist appropriation of meditation arsenic a benignant of narcissistic idiosyncratic experience,” helium said. “It’s astir my enlightenment attained done techno-enhancement. Call that enlightenment if you want, but enlightenment successful a richer consciousness is astir a profound translation not of yourself conscionable arsenic an isolated idiosyncratic but of your narration to different quality beings successful the world. It’s social.”
Reporting for this nonfiction was supported by Public Theologies of Technology and Presence, a journalism and probe inaugural based astatine the Institute of Buddhist Studies and funded by the Henry Luce Foundation.