Mind Hacking: Using Technology to Rewire Your Brain Like a Monk
Founder & CEO of FitMind, www.fitmind.co
Not so long ago my life was an exercise in excel spreadsheets, over-scheduled phone calls, and constant emails. I was working in a high-pressure venture capital job, and putting myself in a state of mental fragmentation.
I was also medicating for ADHD, which seemed to worsen during this period. Something had to change.
I wondered: "What would my life be like without all of the chaos and distractions?"
To find out, I left my job and traveled to Bali, Indonesia to meditate for 300 hours in a month with yogis and monks. No phone, Internet, or even books during this time - a complete information fast.
In essence, I traded 70 hours a week in the cubicle for 70 hours of meditation in silence to see what effects this would have on my mind.
What I found was a rush of profound focus, vitality, and joy. As I lessened the high-dopamine, low-value inputs, my mental output increased dramatically; this was the happiest I had ever felt. I was also astounded to find that I no longer needed medication for my ADHD, as the symptoms disappeared entirely.
Based on my subsequent research in the fields of neuroscience and psychology (Disclaimer
: I run a mental health tech company, FitMind.co, and am completing a Master of Science in Applied Neuroscience
), I'd like to suggest five antidotes to today's distraction crisis that use modern technology and don't require moving to Bali and living like a monk.
Here's the list up front, and then we'll dive into each one individually.
- Biofeedback Devices
- Sensory Deprivation Tanks
- Mobile Apps
- Lucid Dreaming Tech
- Screenomics & Mental Dieting
1. Biofeedback Devices
Meditation biofeedback is useful insofar as it actually helps you train your mind. I've found two technologies to be most effective in this area.
The first is called Muse
, a wearable electroencephalograph (EEG) that costs $150-250. The Muse headband provides real-time feedback on your levels of concentration during meditation. Using large swaths of data on expert meditators, they determined the brainwave patterns correlated with focused attention (primarily alpha waves).
The founder, Ariel Garten came on my podcast a few months ago
and talked about the studies being done on monks in the Himalayas using Muse. Although the device seems to be scientifically valid, Garten openly admitted that it is only currently useful in attentional types of meditation (one meditation category, of many) and so cannot provide feedback on open monitoring (e.g. Vipassana), constructive (e.g. Metta) or deconstructive (e.g. Self-Inquiry) styles. [Please excuse the jargon if you're not an avid meditator.]
Second, is the HeartMath emWave2
, which provides biofeedback based on heart rate variability (HRV). I have spoken to their Chief Scientist and their CEO
, who have a lot of research to share from decades of studies into the relationship between one's nervous system and certain mental states.
They claim that mental states and emotions are meaningfully captured in HRV patterns. At the very least, it's a good indicator of general parasympathetic, rest-and-digest activation. In other words, the HeartMath device can at the very least tell you how relaxed you get while meditating.
In the age of the "quantified self," it's nice to make something as potentially intangible as meditation actually measurable, even if those measurements are still rudimentary.
2. Sensory Deprivation Tanks
It seems every biohacker out there is using these devices, including professional athletes and Navy SEALs.
A sensory deprivation tank, or "float tank," as they're often called, consists of a large bathtub-like chamber without light, sound, or sensation. The water is set to body temperature with enough salt to make you float effortlessly. Basically, all senses are gone and you become just a brain in a jar without external mental inputs.
While in this environment, your brain enters a theta wave state, just like deep meditation, and the “rest-and-digest” parasympathetic nervous system gets activated.
Physician and neuroscientist John Lilly invented the first float tank in 1954 to study the origins of consciousness. He believed that depriving a human of sensory data would reveal what the mind was like in its primordial state. Lilly also thought he could talk to dolphins using his flotation tank, which inspired the movie Altered States.
Regardless of Lilly’s quirks, his invention does likely provide therapeutic value. Although more research is needed, sensory deprivation sessions also show promise for reducing stress, improving recovery time, enhancing sleep, and potentially mitigating mental disorders.
3. Mobile Apps
There are two obvious companies that come to mind when people think of mobile meditation apps, Headspace and Calm. But while these companies have raised a lot of money (Calm has raised $88m and is valued at $1B unicorn status), they are also trying to be "meditation for the masses," and so I think the quality has suffered. Matthew McConaughey reading you a sleep story and Lebron James giving a pep talk are cool and all, but it's a stretch to call this meditation.
I'd like to suggest two other guided mobile apps that you might find useful. One is an app by neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris, called Waking Up
. Pros: good instruction and top meditation teachers interviewed on the app. Cons: a bit repetitive once you've done the initial training course.
Another is called Healthy Minds
, made by two of the leading neuroscience researchers of meditation, Richie Davidson and Cortland Dahl at University of Wisconsin-Madison's Center Healthy Minds. Pros: expert instruction and scientific explanations. Cons: long surveys that you have to fill out to track your progress.
Please beware of the "brain training" apps that make some big claims. For example, Lumosity recently paid $2 million to settle an FTC deceptive advertising charge. There are also some interesting hypnotherapy apps on the market, which I admittedly have not tried yet.
Finally, I'd be remiss not to put in a personal plug here. When I first started meditating I wasn't happy with the often shallow "McMindfulness" approach of apps out there. Either they just taught a single technique or they were dumbed-down relaxation apps. So my team created an in-depth meditation app, called FitMind
, with 25+ beginner to advanced techniques, explanations of the neuroscience, and a quantified progress tracker (see image below) that charts your mental fitness over time.
4. Lucid Dreaming Tech
I'm excited about lucid dreaming technology, which seems on the cusp of finally delivering its promise. By using EEG technology to determine when you're in the rapid eye movement (REM) sleep stage in which you dream, these devices shine lights on your eyelids to trigger lucidity, whereby you can awaken in your dream while remaining asleep. [For more on the topic: Why We Dream
The majority of the scientific community didn’t think that lucid dreaming was possible until Stanford neuroscientist Dr. Stephen LaBerge proved it in the Stanford Sleep Lab
There are many parallels between lucid dreaming (a.k.a. conscious dreaming), perhaps one of the most under-utilized psychological tools. For example, being mindful vs. mindless is directly analogous to conscious dreaming vs. unconscious dreaming. In waking life, you come out of your stories and virtual simulations by remembering to be mindful in the present moment. Similarly, when you become lucid in a dream you come out of your stories using that same metacognitive mechanism.
Two devices, which may or may not deliver and received large backing on crowdfunding campaigns, are iBand
. The most scientifically validated device according to this study
in "Frontiers in Neuroscience" is called ZMax
which is primarily available for research. However, I emailed the team and they said their device is $1000 and will be in stock for consumer purchase in the next month "hopefully," so feel free to reach out on their website if you're into this stuff.
5. Screenomics & Mental Dieting
Although a lot of people are starting to pay attention to how much time they spend in front of a screen (which has been causally linked to depression
), less are concerned with the way in which they interact with those screens. But research suggests that it's not only what you pay attention to
but also how you pay attention
that shapes your brain.
Screenomics is the study of how people view and interact with screens over time. There's some cool research going on at Stanford
. Apparently, people are switching content on their screens every 20 seconds. This wires a short attention span primed for instant gratification.
In this case, I'm not talking about using specifical technological tools, but rather paying attention to the way in which you use technology. If meditation is self-directed neuroplasticity, shaping the brain by directing your attention in a certain way, then our use of technology can broadly be thought of as experience-dependent neuroplasticity.
A "mental diet" involves cutting out high-dopamine, low-value inputs that wire our brains for instant gratification, such as clickbait, gossipy news, and social media. It really does matter what we feed our minds, just the same as our bodies, and yet often we opt for mental junk food.
You are shaping your brain in each moment depending on what is entering your field of awareness and also the quality of attention that you hold. So keeping the Twitter scrolling and tab-switching to a minimum can build more focus and tranquility.
Thankfully, we don't need to meditate for 10 hours per day in the mountains with monks to achieve optimal mental states. With the right tools and habits, anyone can enjoy a vigorous mind while enjoying everyday western life. If we start to view attention as a valuable and limited resource, and if we are deliberate about how and where we direct our attention, the world can be a much happier and more productive place.
We might summarize this last point by saying: use technology deliberately, don't let technology use you. As Dr. Yuval Harari puts it in 21 Lessons for the 21st Century:
"Technology isn’t bad. If you know what you want in life, technology can help you get it. But if you don’t know what you want in life, it will be all too easy for technology to shape your aims for you and take control of your life. Especially as technology gets better at understanding humans, you might increasingly find yourself serving it, instead of it serving you."
It's an exciting time to be alive for those interesting in the intersection of technology and the mind. That's because western psychology, neuroscience, and technology are now complementing Eastern techniques for enhancing the mind. But while science will continue to give us great tools, it's also most important how we apply them, and when it comes to training the mind there are few shortcuts.
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