Designing the Mind

Can a Neurofeedback Device Enhance Your Mind?

HANDS-ON WITH THE NEUROSITY CROWN

WATCH THE VIDEO:

Updates: Since filming this video, I’ve had conversations with both Neurosity founder AJ Keller, and Jeff Moore, COO of Divergence, a platform that allows clinicians and coaches to work with neurofeedback clients. Here are some of the things I learned:

1. Following my suggestion, Neurosity has opened up “Tests” and “Datasets” tabs in the console for all users, which were previously reserved for researchers only. These sections enable a lot of the more complex functionality that could result in deeper psychological insights and optimization, though they may be too advanced for some users.

2. A surprisingly large challenge of a device like this is ensuring that users are using and positioning the device correctly. This is where a platform like Divergence can be useful, as it allows a trained coach or clinician to work with users and ensure they are following the right steps and optimizing the right types of brain activity.

3. A lot of important info on proper use of the device is found in the emails Neurosity sends new customers, which are easy to ignore. While I think as much of this communication as possible should be baked into the software, the emails are a great resource that answer some of my questions (like the fact that you should focus on your work instead of just the music in the Focus function).

4. The NeuroAdaptive audio is different from other neurotech systems, and is arguably fundamentally distinct from neurofeedback. Instead of training you to maximize optimal brain states, it trains its AI to deliver the music that will maximize optimal brain states. I would be eager to see data showing whether one approach is better than the other.

 

I talk a lot about psychotechnologies – the cognitive tools we can use to dramatically enhance our minds and lives. But what about “neurotechnologies?” Can we use physical devices to improve our minds, or are these tools just a gimmick?

After quite a bit of research, I recently got my first neurofeedback device, the Neurosity Crown. And today I’m going to be doing things a bit differently – doing an unboxing and walkthrough of the technology, and sharing some of my thoughts on its potential to enhance one’s psychitectural journey.

When transhumanists refer to “technology” as the primary means of effecting changes to the human condition, this should be understood broadly to include the design of organizations, economies, polities, and the use of psychological methods and tools.

 

– Max More, “The Philosophy of Transhumanism”

Psychitects, we are entering uncharted territory, and I am so excited to be sharing a glimpse into the future of psychological enhancement.

Consumer neurofeedback devices have their roots in EEG research from the 1960s when scientists like Dr. Joe Kamiya started demonstrating that individuals could learn to control their brainwave patterns. These early systems were complex and expensive, so they were confined to clinical settings.

But by the early 2000s, companies like NeuroSky, Emotiv, and Muse had launched portable and relatively affordable devices intended to enhance meditation, stress reduction, and focus, making neurofeedback more user-friendly and accessible through mobile apps.

These devices primarily utilize EEG or Electroencephalography, which essentially measures the electrical activity of the brain. And because all of our thoughts, feelings, and actions essentially boil down to electrochemical reactions in our brains, this can reveal and lot of interesting insights about our minds.

EEG has been used in countless studies and trials to diagnose and treat everything from sleep disorders to brain tumors. And EEG data has even been used to identify certain types of thought patterns and brain activity – one study found that Default Mode Network activity can be identified through EEG data alone.

We can use EEG to measure the oscillating electrical voltages in the brain, or brainwaves, and these measurements track the amplitude, or height of the electrical peaks, which is usually measured in micro-volts, and frequency, or the number of peaks per second, which is measured in hertz. And in measuring these waves, we’ve identified a few types of wave signatures that correspond to different types of brain activity.

Delta (δ) waves correspond to 0.5–4 Hz and show up during deep sleep and dreaming. Theta (θ) waves correspond to 4–8 Hz and appear when you are deeply relaxed or drowsy. Alpha (α) waves correspond to 8–12 Hz and show up during passive attention and relaxation. Beta (β) waves correspond to 12–35 Hz and show up when our attention is active, alert, and sometimes anxious. And Gamma (γ) waves correspond to anything over 35 Hz and represent the highest levels of concentration and problem-solving.

And when we combine this basic wave measurement with AI, we can identify even more complex wave patterns associated with different types of thinking. This potential makes it interesting to me, because it seems like it could help people identify unhealthy thought patterns and train healthier ones. It also seems like a great research tool for me to better understand the mind, and maybe even incorporate into future psychitecture software.

So after looking into a number of devices, I settled on the Neurosity Crown. The reasons I went with this one are first, that the hardware seems to provide the most comprehensive and accurate data, both because it has eight electrodes, covering each lobe of the brain, and because it has an on-board CPU to give it more processing power and less data loss.

And second, on the software side, Neurosity is really set up for developers, and that means all that delicious brainwave data is open and free through their SDK and not locked behind highly limited consumer apps. Now granted, I’m not really a developer and have limited coding skills, but I am pretty good at figuring out what I need to know for technology like this.

People have used Neurosity’s devices to do some fascinating things like controlling lights and even drones with their thoughts alone. And there are clinicians and neuroscientists who are using this very device to research and develop new mental health treatments. It also looks pretty awesome, so there’s that.

 

The Neurosity Crown

Alright now let’s take a look inside the box – as you can see, the branding is very DTM. And inside, we’ve got some instructions. We’ve got the power adaptor, just a standard USB-C to wall adaptor. We’ve got a set of longer electrodes for those who have more hair. And of course we have the crown. Super interesting device, and the design is pretty clever in how it adjusts to fit every type of head so all the electrodes make contact with the scalp.

Once it’s charged, you turn it on like this. You download the Neurosity app, and you can actually pair the Crown to your phone by just tapping them together. Then you place it on your head like this, go through a quick setup process, and you’re ready to get started. Now first, let’s take a look at the mobile app functions. We basically have two tools here as of now, Focus and Meditate.

These two tools are extremely similar – for both, you choose how long you want your session to last, the music, and type of session you want to do, and tell it how focused or calm you feel before starting for a baseline. Your session starts, and it begins playing music, which it calls NeuroAdaptive Audio. This means it uses AI to learn and alter the music based on your mental state to provide you with feedback.

The Focus session encourages you to focus on the music, and it keeps track of when you are focused on when you get distracted. The meditate session adds the voice of a guide who walks you through a standard mindfulness meditation, and then simply plays pleasant music for the remaining time. Once you’re done, it gives you a Calm or Focus score, and maps out where the peaks and dips were in relation to your baseline. It’s a pretty fun way to augment your mindfulness practice or train your brain to get in the zone more easily.

Now I realize I may not be the average user, but when I use simple apps like this, I always want to say, come on, give us the good stuff. I want to see the brain waves! As cool and useful as I think these simple app features could be for some people, what I’m most excited about is all found in what they call the developer console. It’s a little odd to me that this dashboard is called the developer console, because it seems to me this is what almost anyone who buys this device is going to be most interested in. It lets you see your brainwaves, in each region of your brain, in real-time, which is a fascinating and sometimes eerie experience.

This top area shows the activity being picked up by each of the electrodes. The ones that end with an odd number are on the left, and even numbers are on the right. And the letters stand for brain regions like frontal, central, parietal, or top backish, and occipital, or back. It has auto-scale on by default, but I’ve found I generally prefer to turn it off so I can more easily see relative changes.

Now if you’re wondering what types of brain activity are producing these waves, keep in mind that the most dramatic changes are based on movement. So turning my head or raising my arms create large spikes, and sitting still keeps things more stable. I also found that keeping my jaw clenched makes the waves really intense until I unclench.

But physical movement aside, it’s also clear that different thoughts and activities produce noticeable changes in the waves, even when I’m totally still. The waves are far calmer when I empty my mind than when I start reading a scientific article about, I don’t know, brain waves. Another interesting observation is that my brainwaves seem to be a lot more sporadic than my partner’s. Her waves seemed to mostly look the same across different regions and over time, while mine were kind of all over the place.

Now below this, you see the absolute power by band. This is where we get into those delta, alpha, and gamma waves I mentioned. But this tool is not quite what I expected. I thought it would tell me which state I was in, which during normal waking consciousness should be something like alpha.

Instead, it shows all the bands at all times, and the power seems to lean heavily toward delta, which would seem to imply I’m deeply asleep. It’s not just me either, as I’ve seen other videos that showed pretty much the same thing. This could just be a gap in my understanding, but I would love it if there were a way to simply see which type of wave was predominant in each region of my brain over a given period.

To the right of this section is something called PSD Symmetry, which is not defined anywhere on the dashboard, and even Google doesn’t have much on this metric. I believe it stands for power spectral density, but I can’t really find any information on the meaning or significance of PSD symmetry. That being said, in some of my experiments, it has seemed to correspond to some of the most empirical findings on brain lateralization – the left side, particularly CP3 spiked when I made heavy use of conceptual thinking and rationality, and the right side, particularly F6, spiked when I entered a more experiential mindset and stopped analyzing.

Now if we go to the training tab, we can see a truly amazing feature – this tool allows you to train an AI model to identify particular thoughts. That means you can think about biting a lemon, or moving your left pinky, or an artifact detector, whatever that is… and it will learn to detect that thought based on your brainwaves. What’s crazy about this is that it works – at least most of the time. Sometimes I will put it on and it can tell with complete accuracy if I’m thinking about the object or not. Other times, it goes a little wild, and I have to wonder if I put the device on in a slightly different position, or if I’m sitting the wrong way. And yes, I actually am always thinking about an artifact detector.

What this tool is really built for is to program real-life technologies to be triggered by certain thoughts. So you could turn on your lights or make a coffee just by thinking about it. One thing I would love to see would be the ability to add custom thoughts instead of just the ones they’ve listed, though I know this could technically be done by just ignoring the prompt and thinking your custom thought for anything on the list.

There is an emulator feature that let’s developers mimic the performance of these devices. And there’s also a beta music feature that syncs with your Spotify account to find the music that enhances your focus the most. This is a really cool feature that I’ve used a bit, and unsurprisingly, it’s incredibly difficult to measure your brain during a flow state, because the minute you start to get deeply focused, you go oooo I’m really focused, let me check and see if it got that, and then it’s gone. But it did seem to correspond pretty closely to my focus levels.

 

Thoughts on the Crown

Now I’ve only done a few sessions on Neurosity at this point, and it’s really intended to shape your focus and relaxation over time, so it’s not too surprising it hasn’t had any transformative effects yet. It’s certainly interesting, but there are some things that aren’t totally clear to me.

In general, the communication in the app is lacking. In the focus session, I’m not sure whether I should focus strictly on the music the whole time, or to focus on things I’m trying to get done. In the meditate session, I know I’m supposed to relax, but meditation is not the same as drowsiness, and it isn’t the opposite of focus – in fact, meditation typically involves keeping your focus on the breath, and meditation guides typically instruct you to maintain a balance of relaxation and focus.

The NeuroAdaptive Audio is super interesting – the idea of AI that adjusts music in real-time to give you feedback and create the ideal state for focus and calm is really futuristic, and I enjoyed all the music selections. But I’m again, I’m not totally clear on what I’m supposed to be optimizing for – whether it’s better for the music layers to get louder or softer. A core component of neurofeedback is that you have a clear understanding of what reward you’re supposed to be seeking, so it seems like better communication is needed.

Neurosity does seem to have a great team – the founders of the company are both software developers, and it shows. Partly in that it’s built for custom applications, and partly in that the user experience leaves a lot to be desired. To their credit, the visual design on both the hardware and the mobile app is strong. But my entire journey from trying to learn about the device to figuring out how to make use of it has been a lot less intuitive than it should.

Why was it so hard to find out what I could do on the developer console before buying? If developers have already built apps that work with the device, where is the marketplace for finding and downloading these other apps? Why aren’t any of the functions or metrics on the dashboard explained? Why do I have to choose between a mobile app that’s oversimplified and a cryptic dashboard, when I’m pretty sure everyone would prefer something in between that? As someone with a UX background, I could make about 1,000 suggestions, but I’ll leave it at that for now.

All this being said, I definitely feel like I made the right choice going with Neurosity for this one. There are a lot of interesting devices that are just too limiting in their app ecosystems, but feel like there is a ton I can learn from the data Neurosity provides. I would say that the Muse is a close second, and it’s significantly less expensive. But can you use it to start your toaster with only your thoughts? Personally I’m excited for how I’ll be able to use this data to develop a better understanding of the mind to incorporate it into my books and programs.

 

The Future of Neurotech

I actually did a live Mindform event where I shared my screen so the community could see my brainwaves, and at one point, I realized it was possible for the person speaking to tell if I was paying attention to what he was saying or zoning out. And that potential of devices like this, combined with AI, to essentially read our minds in the future is both exciting and scary.

Just imagine the year is 2034, and you get the Apple Vision 6, the latest spatial computing headset, which has now replaced pretty much all screens and become the default mode of digital interaction. Only this version has EEG technology built into it, along with artificial intelligence far more advanced than anything out there today. This makes it so you can control your devices using only your thoughts. And what’s more, this technology can detect your thoughts and anticipate your desires and needs before you’re even conscious of them.

Now to contrast the dystopian and utopian versions of this world: in the sapient, human-centered society, this technology could be used to identify that you are experiencing negative emotions or distorted thoughts, and immediately intervene with a prescription to alter your thinking. It could deliver lessons and meditations that are exactly what you need at the time in order to cultivate greater tranquility, resilience, and satisfaction than we’ve ever been able to before. It could identify and reform biased beliefs and bad habits, so seamlessly that our minds, and ultimately the world, would just seem to be rapidly and automatically improving, and many forms of suffering and mental illness could become extinct.

In the dystopian version, this technology could be used to harvest your most personal thoughts and sell that data to companies who will then use it to send you hyper-targeted ads and manipulate your behavior. The government may use it as the most powerful propaganda machine for influencing opinions, and may even hold individuals accountable for their most personal thoughts, completely eliminating the notion of privacy from our world.

So I have mixed feelings about the future of this technology to say the least. But what about the present? Should you get one of these things? Could you use a device like the Crown to build a better mind and improve your life? Sure, I could see you using neurofeedback to enhance your focus or relaxation, and end up saying you are .5% happier and healthier now.

But although they don’t come in a sexy package like this, the fact is that there are ideas more than two-thousand years old that have the power to make you 50% happier and healthier by changing your mindset and attitudes. Yes, studying the ideas found in Taoism, Epicureanism, or CBT takes cognitive work. A big part of my mission is to make that work fun and exciting. Ultimately, my view of a device like this is that, compared to the existing tools of psychitecture, it’s mostly a toy. But if you can and want to buy a cool toy, it doesn’t get much cooler than this.

What about neurofeedback interests you? Do you look forward to a future where this technology is ubiquitous, or does it scare you?

Neurosity Crown affiliate link (free shipping with coupon code DTM): https://neurosity.co/dtm

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