Many of us grapple with anxiety, nerves, fear, and pain—and try to ease those emotions through mindfulness and meditation. But what if apps like Headspace aren’t enough? And what if a pair of sunglasses could help?
Last year, Smith became the first company to incorporate brain-sensing assisted-meditation technology into sunglasses. The Lowdown Focus ($350), which debuted in 2017, uses electroencephalogram (EEG) sensors to read, analyze, and provide feedback on your brain signals and thereby, says Smith, help athletes train their brains to focus better. The EEG technology comes from Muse, one of several companies that have put less fashionable wearable meditation aids on the market in recent years.
The glasses work with an app to guide the wearer through sessions of three to eight minutes. Sensors in the earpieces and nosepiece read your brain waves and produce real-time audio feedback via your cell phone in the form of ocean sounds. Waves crash when you’re distracted and then simmer down as your mind refocuses. When you’re completely focused, birds chirp.
After each session, the app produces a report card, with stats on how much time you spent focused, distracted, or somewhere in between; how many times you brought your mind back from distraction; and how many times you achieved complete focus.
With regular sessions (Smith suggests once per day), the brain supposedly gets better at focusing, much the same way biceps and triceps get stronger after regular weightlifting sessions. The glasses are like the weights and the app is like the coach, telling you when you are and aren’t using proper form.
How do they do this? Smith simply explains that the glasses track the five primary brain waves (alpha, beta, theta, delta, and gamma) from the frontal lobe, which is known to play a role in controlling attention, and the temporal lobe, which has been shown to produce a specific rhythm on the alpha frequency in the brains of people who are meditating.
According to Arthur Grant, a professor of neurology at SUNY Downstate, no scientific research has shown that EEG is a reliable and accurate and measure of focus. The frontal lobe controls many functions other than focus (behavior, personality, voluntary movement), so it’s difficult to isolate information on focus alone. “You probably could distinguish between someone who is concentrating on something repetitively and someone who is not thinking about anything,” he says. But it would require “a tremendous amount of baseline data on an individual basis.” For example: instructing the person to focus on running for a half minute and then think about nothing for a half minute, over and over again, to collect reference points for future sessions.
More likely, the Lowdown Focus isn’t actually tracking concentration; it’s tracking meditation and conflating mastery of meditation with the ability to concentrate. And, according to Evan Fertig, a Portland-based neurologist specializing in EEG at the Providence Epilepsy Center and Providence Brain and Spine Institute, that’s problematic too, because the body of literature on the connections between EEG and meditation is “emerging but not widely accepted” in the science community. “There is research being done in this area, but right now there is no clearly established EEG correlate for meditation,” he says. “There are some suggestions that the alpha-to-beta ratio may change in people who are good at meditating,” but studies haven’t been large enough to produce conclusive information. Fertig also notes that centrally acting anxiety, depression, and sedative medications like clonazepam and benzodiazepine can affect the frequency of patients’ brain waves, which means EEG results may not reflect whether they’re actually in a meditative state.
Even healthy people may not get an accurate reading. In a clinical setting with a still patient, a full 21-electrode EEG setup, and advanced technology to limit interference from muscle movement, “it’s still difficult to distinguish eye movement from brain waves,” says Fertig. By comparison, the Smith glasses have just five sensors, and only two (the sensors on each earpiece) are picking up actual brain signals; the three nose sensors are merely picking up neutral electrical reference points to compare against the actual EEG signal. Graeme Moffat, chief scientist and vice president of regulatory affairs at Interaxon, the company that makes Muse EEG sensors, says the Muse algorithm records and weeds out eye and head movement and muscle tension around the jaw. However, if hospital-grade equipment struggles, it’s logical to assume the miniature EEG on the sunglasses would struggle even more.
My tests with the glasses were fairly inconclusive. After several weeks of regular sessions, I didn’t notice much of a difference in my ability to focus at work. I did feel slightly calmer for the five or so minutes following a session, but the distraction of incoming e-mails quickly drew me back to my typical, frenzied state of mind. On the other hand, fellow gear editor Emily Reed felt significantly more zoned-in after sessions and thrived off of the data. “I loved that the Smith glasses gave me a concrete visual for a practice that is usually hard to tell if you’re doing right,” she said. “The birds became very rewarding for me and gave me a good incentive to take a break from work to do a quick session.” Admittedly, though, it’s hard to say how much of that is due to the glasses themselves, or to the basic act of taking a few minutes to step away from the computer and breathe deeply.
The overarching question, of course, is why someone should spend $350 on a pair of meditation sunglasses instead of downloading a free (or cheap) meditation app. The concept of getting instantaneous, actionable insights into how good you are at focusing is different from other meditation programs out there, and it’s enticing. As for whether the glasses actually improve your mental game and, ultimately, your splits or your weightlifting PR, that’s almost impossible to say.
Here’s what we do know: they’ll probably make you want to meditate more. The Lowdown Focus is one of the most inconspicuous wearable tech products we’ve seen; it’s just as comfortable and stylish as regular sunglasses; with Bluetooth connectivity you can use headphones to do a session without anyone noticing; and the real-time feedback and progress reports are a motivator to improve your meditation game.
Just take the data with a grain of salt.