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I measured my brainwaves for 1000 days straight: Why, how, & what transformed as a result
December 19, 2017
Michael Balchan was our first ever “Muse Millionaire” (1,000,000 calm points!!), and recently we’ve had the pleasure of following along his 1000 day journey of meditation with Muse. His results, transformation, and reflections were truly insightful.
This article has been lovingly republished with permission from the original found here.
“I know of no other single activity that by itself can produce such a great improvement in the quality of life.” – Bernie Siegel, M.D
“The purpose […] is nothing less than the radical and permanent transformation of your entire sensory and cognitive experience.” – Bhante Henepola Gunaratana
In 2013, several years into a commodity trading career and desperately seeking answers for how to both manage my stress and improve my performance, I experienced an event that would change everything.
I’d been experimenting with meditation for months. It was the latest in a series of well-being activities designed to close the gap between how I wanted to feel and how I actually did. Enough people and resources had recommended the practice, it seemed be foolish not to try. So, I followed simple instructions from Leo Babauta of Zen Habits, did a short audio course from Oprah & Deepak Chopra, and worked my way up to 10-15 minutes a day.
Then, one day, a shift happened.
It was after the close of commodity markets but before the end of the day for equities. I was wrapping up my post-trading work. when I heard my brother speaking a bit loudly considering many people were still focused on the open equity market.
He was close enough for me to speak to and an older-brother pattern in my brain immediately activated. The ‘make sure he knows it’s better to not do that,’ one. That pattern typically ends in a harsh, condescending comment – not a behavior I was proud of.
But, just as I was about to snap at him, I realized that I had a choice. I didn’t have to respond negatively. More importantly, I didn’t want to. Unfortunately, the split-second insight alone wasn’t enough. I watched myself continue, as if on autopilot, with the sub-optimal behavior.
The experience was a revelation.
I hadn’t yet been able to step in and change my behavior, but I’d discovered the gap that existed between what happened in the world outside – and how I chose to respond to it. On a deep level, I finally understood Viktor Frankl’s insight: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Having experienced a taste of the change meditation was capable of creating, I was hooked. I made a 100% commitment to training my brain every (!) single (!) day (!).
I was going to master my relationship with my mind.
Over the following months, I continued with my daily breath-focused practice. I started noticing positive changes in many areas that meditation can impact: mental health, performance, happiness, relationships, focus, productivity, creativity, and more.
But, by the winter of 2014, my progress was reaching a plateau.
Highly regarded teachers and practitioners taught that the most important part of meditating is showing up, and that we shouldn’t “judge” our meditations – advice I followed. (and still do!) Still, new technologies had the potential to accelerate my progress and shorten the path to mastery.
It was time for me to up my game.
Enter: The Muse Headband
The Muse headband is a slim headband embedded with a personal, portable set of EEG sensors. Wearing it connects your brain to your phone, utilizing “transformative neurofeedback technology” to give “accurate, real-time feedback on what’s happening in your brain while you meditate.”
Bulletproof Exec Dave Asprey gave the Muse a strong recommendation in his first Quarterly box, where he encouraged taking a data-backed approach to mental training. Smartcuts author Shane Snow offered similar advice after his two-week experiment with Muse, shared on the 4-Hour Blog: “Can you rewire your brain in two weeks? The answer appears to be — at least partially — yes.”1
I was intrigued, and excited. Research by Anders Ericcson, whose work was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell as the “10,000-hour rule,” identified the fundamental role feedback plays in purposeful (or “deliberate”) practice. The quality of feedback is vital for learning new skills, as is the timing. The sooner feedback follows an action, the faster the brain can draw an association between that action and the outcome produced.
If the Muse could provide real-time feedback on how different ways of thinking affected my mind, I could accelerate my progress. Extend the results from Snow’s experiment over a longer period, and I might be able to achieve mental mastery in a fraction of the time: months and years instead of decades.
I’d already made a commitment to daily mental training. As Jack Canfield says, “Once you make a 100% commitment to something, there are no exceptions. It’s a done deal. Non-negotiable. Case closed! Over and out.” If nothing else, the Muse would be a fun way to track my progress and hold myself accountable.
It would also be a great thing to share with people who’d experimented with meditation but “didn’t know if I was doing it right” or “didn’t know if it was working.” And, even though I’d experienced phenomenal gains, I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t wondered the same.
So I ordered a headband* and anxiously awaited the start of my own neuro-enhancement experiment. Would it be significantly different from what I’d been doing up to that point? If the Muse worked, would the results translate to life outside of my sessions? Could I train my mind to be in a state of present moment awareness and calm – all the time?
I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect, but I was excited to find out.
The Muse headband arrived on the day after Christmas: December 26th, 2014. I immediately connected it to my phone and started playing around with the software.
Rather than displaying brain waves by frequency – alpha, beta, delta, etc. – the app simplifies things into three groups: either my mind was active, neutral, or calm.
When the headband senses that your brain is in an active state, the app plays sounds of violent weather and strong winds blowing. As your mind quiets, so does the weather, until the wind is still and waves are gently lapping at the shore. Remain calm for a few seconds and birds begin to chirp. Collect as many birds as you can, spend time in a calm state to earn “calm points,” and receive various awards for different achievements: this is gamification in full force.
After setting up the band and completing the required three-minute introductory session, during which I earned exactly zero birds, I settled in for a twelve-minute meditation. It started strong, but around 3 minutes in my attention began to wander. The wind picked up and the birds flew away.
By the time I finished, I’d spent 55% of the time in a calm state.
It was both a reassurance that I’d been moving in the right direction and a clear demonstration that I had a lot of room for improvement.
My Muse streak increased to “1…
Over the next few days, I experimented with different techniques. I tried to pay attention to what part of my mind was thinking (or not), and where my focus was – sometimes on the breath, sometimes counting, and sometimes on a mantra.
Each day, the streak grew. In less than a week, I was recording sessions with calm percentages in the mid-80s.
However, once the holidays ended and the New Year began, I had a hard time replicating those results. I could see the impact of less sleep, busier days, and volatile markets in the quality of my meditations. I noticed that I was often falling asleep during the mid-week, early morning sessions. My scores dropped and the birds abandoned me.
Clearly, I had more work to do.
The goal, after all, wasn’t to find intense periods of internal peace, but to be able to do it regularly and consistently. Especially when the world around me was encouraging otherwise.
In the weeks and months that followed, I once again began to experience dramatic increases in my quality of life. Muse was delivering. The streak continued to grow, and scores continued to improve.
Initially, I could only hold a calm state for a shorter period. As my practice progressed, so did the length of time I could maintain focus.
After 100 days I felt proud. I’d learned that instead of forcing my mind to think (or not think) in a certain way, it was better to let go and allow the bio-feedback to do its work. Without me getting in the way, my brain quickly got the hang of how to get the birds chirping. It was Wu Wei – the ancient Taoist concept of “non-action” or “non-doing.” And it was working.
After a few months of consistently high-quality sessions, I re-introduced conscious control. I started working on being able to enter a calm state at will. By using the audio as a key to intentionally adjust what my mind was doing, I gradually found how to purposefully create the same state that my brain had done intuitively.
I also re-introduced other techniques I’d learned – mantras, binaural beats, visualizations etc. – using the headband to capture data on their effectiveness.
On day 291 I passed the 1 Million mark for “calm” points. Apparently, that had not been done before.
December rolled around and my streak rolled past one year. 365 days. It was a psychological milestone that got me thinking. In another year the streak would be around 700. Keep going, and I could get it to four digits: 1,000. That felt exciting. It was a long way off, but doable if I continued to focus on one day at a time.
As the streak increased, so did my commitment. Each milestone gave me more motivation to continue.
+1 +1 +1 +1 +1 +1 …
Every day, the length of my streak grew by one. Each day, my mind – and my relationship with it – grew stronger.
I started loosely alternating between sessions with the audio feedback on and sessions with the audio feedback off. That way, I continued to benefit from the neuro-feedback training, while also improving my ability to assess and alter my mental state without the Muse. By doing sessions with the audio feedback turned off and analyzing results after each meditation finished, I could compare what I thought the data would show to what it actually did. Eventually, this would become my primary way of training.
Meanwhile, the Muse headband went with me everywhere. I meditated at home in the early morning, on benches in the park, and in the back of the trading floor after the close. I wore it on planes, trains, and busses.
I logged sessions next to wildlife in the African Savanah and surfers on the beaches of Australia.
I once even meditated with the headband while riding my bike through the streets of Chicago, wondering how high a score I’d be able to capture as I navigated traffic. (Better than expected.)
Time I spent meditating in the morning had a significantly positive impact on the rest of the day. The rest of the day also had an impact on my sessions. The clock-time, environment, and amount of caffeine I consumed all impacted the calm score. But the number one factor, by far, was how sleep deprived I was. If tired, I’d fall asleep while meditating and quickly register an active brain state.
No matter how advanced I got, once fatigue took over the overall session score would plummet. On those days, I took comfort knowing that a short rest was exactly what I needed – and often had a bigger impact.
Still, even in deep-recharge mode and completely unplugged from the world in every other way, I made time to train with the Muse.
At 500 days, extreme negative reactions were rare, and any aggressive behaviors were made by choice rather than the result of backlash. During volatile markets, I could tell when I was losing control of my mind. I knew how to use one or two minutes to get re-centered and re-focused. When my wife or family said something that upset me, I was able (most of the time 🙂 to express that upset in a calm way, and move together with them to a resolution.
It was becoming easier and easier to intentionally find “calm.” My session scores had stopped climbing, but my “calm life” score continued to increase.
The distinction between the things I could control and things I couldn’t was becoming very clear. As the ancient Greek slave turned Stoic philosopher Epictetus wrote in the Enchideron, “Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.”
As my mental training continued, I wasted less time, energy, and attention on anything I wasn’t unable to control. The past, other people’s behavior, the weather, illnesses, global geopolitical events, what other people think of us – these things aren’t within any of our control. But the actions that we take and the way we behave – that is.
I was more consistently choosing actions that I felt proud of and satisfied by.
Gus, by the way, also loved meditating with the Muse. Both at home…
and on vacation…
At day 731, (two years in) a sense of presence, mindfulness, and peace were the default. I kept my cool through emotionally charged inter-personal situations. I maintained mental stability during periods of intense turmoil. During challenging athletic events or painful physical moments, I was able to find internal acceptance and strength.
It had become completely clear why experts across industries stress the importance of training our minds – there is simply no other skill as widely impactful, or as critical.
As Psychologist Belisa Vranich urges, “You must have a meditation or mindfulness component on your to-do list. Period. Recent research has been confirming this conclusion with ever more evidence as chemical changes, physical brain volumes, and meticulously set physiological markers are tracked and recorded.”
Then, on September 20th, 2017, the streak hit 1,000 days.
The congratulatory message was identical to the day before, only with one more digit. The real award was internal – I knew how much I’d changed, and the impact that it had on my life, as well as the lives of those around me.
The space between stimulus and response had become a place to live from, rather than just visit.
As Frankl said, that space presents a choice. It is the choices we make in those micro-moments that determine how we feel about our lives. When we make choices that align with our highest selves, the people who we want to be, and the values that we want to guide us – happiness ensues. Eudamonia. “Human flourishing.”
I had high expectations for how the Muse would help me to expand my mind. I hadn’t expected it to expand my heart and soul as well.
Lessons & Results
My meditation practice started with hope (+ faith) and out of respect for everyone who’d recommended and encouraged it.
After passing 1,500 days of meditation – 1,000 supercharged by the Muse headband – I can unequivocally say that it has transformed my life. My moment to moment experience of being has shifted on a fundamental level. I’m happier, more satisfied, more successful, more present, more loving, more stable, and more alive than I’ve ever been.
It’s as if I’d previously been living in a radio broadcast, only to now experience life in IMAX 3D with Digital Surround Sound. Instead of being a spectator, I’m now the creator of my experiences.
The neuro-feedback provided by the Muse was literally mind-altering, and the data collected played a big role in the brain’s re-wiring. Here are some of the final stats.
Over* 31,919 minutes of Muse-assisted meditation. (*Some sessions were lost due to connectivity problems.)
67,702 birds collected.
70,116 “recoveries:” catching the mind in an active state and returning to calm.
3 million “calm points” earned.
Average session: 65% calm, ranging from lows in the single digits to highs in the mid-90s.
My journey has inspired me to write an introductory guide to meditation, lead group meditation workshops, and commit to supporting 5% of the world’s population in developing a daily mindfulness practice. (My team and I are currently working on an online pledge to track and support that global goal.)
As for the future, I don’t plan on going a day without meditating – for the rest of my life. The mind is just too important.
I’ve allowed the Muse streak to stop for now, but the headband continues to be a big part of my mental training arsenal. I’m due for an upgrade though – the old one has earned a break.
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