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Can headphones train you to focus better?

Can headphones train you to focus better?


Maybe not

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It’s all too easy for me to lose focus at work. One minute, I’m doing research for an article, the next I’m thinking about an episode of Black Mirror. I’ve tried most of the usual tricks to improve my attention: I used browser extensions to block Twitter, I chewed gum, and switched around my to-do lists. Tech companies feel my pain, and that of countless other Americans, and so entrepreneurs from Montreal have launched a new product with exciting promises: headphones that prevent you from being distracted and “rewire your brain” so you can concentrate.

The Kickstarter launched this week and has already exceeded its $100,000 funding goal, so the headphones are expected to ship to backers by the end of the year. They’re called Mindset, and they cost $209 a pair during the Kickstarter and $349 later.

I tried a prototype after meeting with co-founders Jacob Flood and David Doyon in Manhattan. The gadget definitely seems nice — comfortable, over-ear headphones that are both noise-canceling and wireless. You can of course use them to listen to music, though I wasn’t able to test that. They look exactly like a fancy pair of headphones, except that on the inside, in the area that touches my hair, they have five electrodes, which I couldn’t feel at all.

Mindset works like this: you put them on and, on an app, you “start a work session.” The electrodes start measuring your brain waves. We already know that there are different kinds of brain waves for different activities, and that the pattern looks different if you’re sleeping versus really concentrating. So when the electrodes pick up that your focus is wandering, it’ll play a tone. You hear the tone, realize that your mind is wandering, and refocus. Over time, the act of noticing that you’re distracted will rewire your brain and teach you to become distracted less easily, Flood told me. You can also see visualizations of how hard you were concentrating to figure out, for example, that you should take a break after 20 minutes, or maybe do the most challenging work around 2PM.

Can the headphones really pick up what’s going on in your brain? And can we actually rewire our minds to pay more attention? Unfortunately, the science says it’s not that easy. Mindset claims to use something called “neurofeedback” — the idea that you see real-time data of your brain’s activity, and then use that information to train your brain to become better at something. In this case, attention.

Consumer EEG often picks up false signals

But there just isn’t very much data that using neurofeedback can really improve your attention, says Barry Giesbrecht, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Santa Barbara and director of its Attention Lab. The concept of neurofeedback has been around for decades, and scientists have long tried to use it to rewire the attention of people with ADHD. After all that time, the results are very mixed, and the studies that do tend to show effects are not designed well, says Giesbrecht. To be reliable, scientific studies have to have a lot of participants, be double-blind (meaning nobody knows who’s getting what), and study subjects have to be randomly assigned to treatment, no treatment, or placebo. Most studies that show the effectiveness of neurofeedback are weak on these counts.

For example, the Mindset founders pointed me to a paper that showed that neurofeedback worked almost as well as the drug Ritalin in treating kids with ADHD. But there were only 24 people in the trial, and the parents got to choose whether their kid got neurofeedback or Ritalin, and this alone could have biased the results. The study also didn’t have a placebo group, and studies on neurofeedback that include a placebo sometimes show no difference between using neurofeedback and not using it, says Giesbrecht. That said, a different study from 2014 showed hopeful results and was randomized and double-blind, though it didn’t include a placebo. Of course, some could say that as long as it works, it doesn’t matter if it’s a placebo effect, but that doesn’t mean the studies are scientifically rigorous.

The Mindset headphones also use electrodes to record brain waves, but it’s unclear how accurate those electrodes are. In electroencephalography, or EEG, electrodes measure the electrical signals produced by the brain's neurons through the scalp. It’s often used as a diagnostic tool, since strange brain wave patterns can hint at neurological problems. More recently, people have started harnessing EEG as a way to power devices or “read minds” (spoiler: they can’t actually read your mind).

The five electrodes on the Mindset are located at specific sections to match up with different parts of the brain. The two on the outside (near the ears) are supposed to gather information about your brain “at rest,” while the other ones are supposed to gather more information about how you’re concentrating and then compare that to “at rest.” The location of the sensors is good, says Madeline Fields, a neurologist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, whom I told the exact location of the electrodes. Assuming the device fits correctly, the electrodes do match to the sensorimotor regions of the brain, which are often used in neurofeedback for attention training.

But that still doesn’t mean the signal will be accurate, says Chris Berka, the CEO of Advanced Brain Monitoring. (The Mindset founders referred me to Berka’s paper on EEG as some of the science underpinning the headset.) Flood and Doyon told me that Mindset is as accurate as most consumer EEG devices. But, according to Berka, most consumer EEG devices just aren’t very accurate anyway.

Consumer EEG tends to pick up a lot of false positives, like signals from muscles, or even the electricity that powers the device itself. “So if there’s any forehead furrowing or jaw clenching, that can easily override the brain EEG,” Berka says. Plus, consumer EEG uses dry sensors, unlike the “wet sensors” used in medical EEG that are applied with a gel or conductive cream. Dry sensors are more likely to pick up random signals.

Fit is important, too. For EEG to work, the electrodes need to make contact with your scalp. Doyon said that the company spent a lot of time making sure that the fit would be comfortable for many people. The headset was comfortable for me, but I have thick hair and, as far as I can tell, the electrodes didn’t touch the skin on my head.

During the demo I did a few attention exercises (like reading a boring passage while an unrelated podcast played in the background) while wearing the headphones. The graph of the results seemed to roughly match up with how hard I was concentrating. But those results were very general and I was being tested on tasks that I don’t do on a daily basis. It’s unclear what the graphs might look like if I were doing a more everyday activity. And it’s unclear how the headphones would handle a situation where I am concentrating on work, but switching between doing tasks that might produce different brain waves, like doing research for an article and writing the actual thing.

Maybe we should just try meditating

So if, like me, you want to improve your focus, what does work?

Of course, the thing that works is boring. It’s meditation, say both Giesbrecht and Michael Posner, a neuroscientist at the University of Oregon who studies memory. Posner has conducted studies showing that even a few days of really good mindfulness meditation can alter the ability of the brain to focus. Physical exercise is also one common intervention that can help, too, especially with elderly people, he says.

Meditation is helpful because, unlike “brain games” that train you to pay attention to one thing, its effects can generalize. If you engage in mindfulness meditation, there is evidence that it’ll help you focus better in general, not just be better at playing 2048, according to Giesbrecht.

Though the science is shaky now, that doesn’t mean that there’s no hope for EEG and headphones like Mindset to help us with attention in the future. Lara Marcuse, who is co-director of the Mount Sinai Epilepsy Center, wrote in an email to The Verge that this technology generally (not Mindset specifically, which she didn’t see) could be useful when combined with video games, meditation, and other forms of brain-machine interfaces. But the problem of false positives from picking up unrelated information — what scientists call “artifact” — is still a problem for consumer companies to solve, and the technology that she has seen so far is very rudimentary. “Cell phones will be called, avatars will fight complex fights, and meditators will go deeper longer with EEG technology,” she wrote. “But maybe not today.”