I Wore a Brain Sensor Headband to Track Exactly How the Election Ruined Me
What does anxiety look like? Can we see it and measure it? As someone who tests and writes about tech, including consumer health devices, I’ve been curious about whether and how we can see, measure, and track some of the more nebulous aspects of our health at home on our own, so we can provide doctors and health care teams with more accurate and less subjective information. What does worry look like in my body? How does having low resilience change my sleep or ability to focus?
This has been a rough year for many of us. I don’t need to list all the ways. There’s not a single person I know who isn’t more stressed, more anxious, and less resilient than they were a year ago. In late October, a few days before the U.S. general election, I got my hands on a brainwave-sensing headband called Muse that takes EEG readings—in other words, it measures the electrical signals from your brain. It primarily does this while coaching you through meditation sessions.
I had tested and written about the device when it first came out a few years ago, but the new version comes with added features for tracking biometric data while sleeping. I was eager to try the new version, especially around election time, so I could compare my results before, during, and after a stressful moment.
There’s not a single person I know who isn’t more stressed, more anxious, and less resilient than they were a year ago.
Muse, the device that tracks brain waves
The latest version of the device is called Muse S ($349.99). In addition to reading EEGs, it has sensors for measuring heart rate, breathing, and motion. Instead of the original rigid, over-the-ear band, the Muse S is a soft strap, so you can wear it to bed and it stays put. That means you can track your sleep with Muse and wake up to analyze your overnight tossing and turning, heart rate, and brain activity.
An EEG isn’t something the average person can make much sense of. Muse, however, uses the data in real time to give you feedback about how calm or active your brain is during a meditation session. You put on the device, slip on some headphones, launch a meditation in the companion app, and simply follow the audio instructions.
There are different meditations you can do, but most that use the EEG sensors (rather than, say, a heart rate meditation) ask you to focus on your breath while listening to a nature soundscape, like rain in a forest or waves on a beach. When your brain waves increase in activity, the weather sounds more intense. When your mind settles down, so does the weather. When you achieve deep, restful focus for five seconds or longer, you hear a bird chirp in the distance.
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At the end of the session, you view your EEG on a graph. To anyone but a trained neurologist, this graph won’t mean anything, so Muse sections it into three parts: active, neutral, and calm. You also see on the graph when the birds chirped, if any did, as well as stars indicating moments when you recovered quickly from a chatty mind to a state of focus.
How election stress affected my brain waves
I just happened to get the Muse S a few days before the U.S. general election. I was curious to use it in the days before and after the election to see whether and how my body and mind would change as a result of the tension. I used Muse during the daytime for short meditation sessions and overnight while I slept. Let’s look at the data from the daytime meditations first.
Before Election Day
On October 30, several days before the election, I suited up and did two sessions. The first one was full of recovery moments, and in the second one, I heard three birds. Not bad. There was nothing memorable about either of these sessions. I felt like I focused on my breath fairly well and without too much distraction.
The next two days, I used the app in the evening instead and did longer sessions. My results were radically different from the previous day. During the meditation sessions, I felt sleepy, and it felt like my mind kept wandering, but according to the data, I was a calm mind machine.
The day of the election, November 3, I felt a little on edge. On the one hand, I was certain we wouldn’t know the outcome of the election that night. There was nothing to anticipate. On the other hand, it had been a brutal campaign season, and most of the country was anxious for it to be over. Plus, the day after the election, I had an early morning appointment to have a medical biopsy and was feeling apprehensive about it. Again, I did two meditation sessions, not quite back to back. I had a couple of calm-bird moments in the first one, but in the second, my mind was all over the place.
November 4 and 5 were just as bad as Election Day itself. My brain couldn’t find a calm state. Just a few days earlier, I was achieving minutes of calm time per session. Now the measurements were in seconds.
After the election was called
November 7 was the day the election was called for Biden. You can see that I started to make progress from November 7 to 9. The hitch is that as of November 9, I still hadn’t gotten the results from my biopsy. (As of this writing, I still haven’t.) As much as I was relieved about the election being over, I was still worried about my health, and you can see it in the data.
The graphs above definitely suggest that I’ve had a hard time controlling my mind into a state of calm and focus, especially after the election. I’m not surprised. Now let’s look at how my sleep was affected.
Tracking sleep through the election
I gained access to Muse’s new sleep-tracking features on the night of November 3, Election Day, so I don’t have prior data for comparison.
However, I have tracked my sleep dozens if not hundreds of times over the past few years with activity trackers, heart rate monitors, and other sensors, so I do have a clear idea of what a good night’s sleep entails. Full disclosure: I sleep like a champ. It’s borderline my superpower. Aside from the occasional short, restless sleep before an early morning flight, I really do hit the hay hard on the regular, and I’ve been like this my whole life. Eight hours of sleep is normal. On weekends, my routine barely shifts, and I struggle to stay awake past 11 p.m. My circadian rhythm is so tightly entrained to the sun that I don’t even need an alarm clock anytime the sun rises before 6:30 a.m. Even with my sleep superpower, I learned through tracking my sleep how to get an extra two hours of sleep per week.
My first sleep with Muse might objectively appear pretty good, but it was one of the worst nights I had in weeks.
In the image, you can see that I woke up at least three times during the night. I also was in bed less than 7.5 hours. That said, those are the only two significant differences between the sleep data from Tuesday–Wednesday (November 4, above) and Sunday–Monday (November 9, below).
The sleep I got from Sunday to Monday (November 9), after the presidential election was called, felt like a more typical night of rest. I was surprised that a lot of the data Muse collected looks similar to the night when I felt like I slept poorly. You can see that the night when I had a subjectively better night’s sleep, my sleep score is 99 out of 100. The night when I slept poorly, I scored only 89.
What can data do for you?
In testing and writing about consumer health devices, I have to confront the question, “What do people think their data should do for them?” What is the value in tracking our steps, or our heart rate while sleeping, or our brain waves while meditating? What do we get? What do we learn? How can we act on that information in a meaningful way?
Sometimes the answer is clear. You get a fitness tracker, become aware of how inactive you are, and feel motivated to be more active because you can see the needle start to move. Or you get a bathroom scale, become more aware of your weight, and start taking a more proactive role in managing it.
If tracking and analyzing meditation sessions and sleeps with Muse S can give people comfort through data, there’s certainly no harm in that.
Other times, the question is much tougher to answer. What can I do with the information that I was more stressed and less able to focus during the election compared with several days before or after? How can I act on that data in a meaningful way?
In the long term, I have high hopes for consumer health devices, but I think the key will be in how medical professionals work with us to decide what data to collect, and when, and how to make sense of it. Already, the fire hose of information at our fingertips is a double-edged sword. It can make patients feel empowered, more involved in their care, and more aware of their bodies. On the other hand, in the internet age, the health care community has complained, often rightfully so, about patients who march into their offices with self-diagnoses from “Dr. Google” and a list of medications they want. We as patients have the right to bring our data to the table, yes, but we also need to listen to health care professionals as they make sense of it or when they tell us the data is giving us a false sense of direction.
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In the case of a product like Muse, I don’t know yet what the data can do for me. Sure, I was less able to focus during a stressful stretch of time, but that was no surprise. Muse gives you real-time feedback about a meditation session, and that may help you improve or even motivate you to meditate more regularly. But I can also see how that’s diametrically opposed to some types of meditation that say we literally shouldn’t judge our meditation performance.
Resilience is a long game
The past few months have been a test of resilience. How much stress and hardship can you handle? If tracking and analyzing meditation sessions and sleeps with Muse S can give you comfort through data, there’s certainly no harm in that. While I still have a lot of questions about the value we can get from a product like Muse S as it stands today, there may be benefits for people who simply find it reassuring to measure and analyze their sleep, brain activity, ability to focus, and so on.
If you’re interested in Muse for meditation but are balking at the price, the previous model, Muse 2 ($249.99) costs less, includes a heart rate sensor, and is still available to purchase. It has a rigid design, however, and the battery lasts only five hours, so it won’t do you much good overnight.