Brain stimulation, neurofeedback, and the promise of enlightenment now

It was a Monday morning, which was reason enough to meditate. I was anxious about the day ahead, and so, as I’ve done countless times over the past few years, I settled in on my couch for a short meditation session. But something was different this morning.

Gently squeezing my forehead was a high-tech meditation headset, outfitted with sensors that would read my brain waves to tell me when I was calm and when I was, well, me. Beside me, my phone was running an app that paired over Bluetooth with the headset. It would give me audio feedback on my brain’s performance in real time, then score me with points and awards.

This was the Muse headband, an innovation in mindfulness that picks up on Silicon Valley’s penchant for quantifying every aspect of ourselves through wearable tech — the idea being that the more data you have on your brain waves, heart rate, sleep, and other bodily functions, the more you can optimize the machine that is you. But a thought nagged at me: Isn’t there something self-defeating and contradictory about trying to optimize meditation by making it all about achieving success in a gamified app?

The underlying technology is definitely intriguing. Muse is an application of neurofeedback, a tool for training yourself to regulate your brain waves. Neurofeedback began gaining popularity years ago in clinical contexts, as research showed it had the potential to help people struggling with conditions like ADHD and PTSD.

Muse is one of several companies now selling neurofeedback devices with a different aim: making you a more enlightened version of yourself. At $245 a pop, its headbands are already accessible to consumers at stores like Walmart or Best Buy.

In fact, neurofeedback is just one of the newer technologies being touted as a way to catapult us into higher, more enlightened states of consciousness. Other technoboosts include brain stimulation, which uses electric currents or other means to directly target certain brain areas and change their behavior, and synthetic psychedelics, which are lab-created versions of drugs such as ayahuasca. Collectively, they form a genre that Kate Stockly and Wesley Wildman, researchers at Boston University’s Center for Mind and Culture, call “spirit tech.”

Like me, the researchers started out skeptical of these technologies. But they grew fascinated as they began exploring big questions: Can we use tech to provoke experiences that will make people lastingly more compassionate and altruistic? Is an experience of enlightenment that’s induced by technology “authentic” (and does that matter)? If we democratize spiritual insights so they become accessible faster to lots more people — not just those of us who can afford to spend decades meditating in a cave somewhere — can that help our species evolve?

These questions, and the shifting answers to them, hint at the strange new terrain we are wandering onto, as neuroscience, self-optimization tech, and mindfulness collide.

The promise of neurofeedback, brain stimulation, and synthetic psychedelics

The different varieties of spirit tech — neurofeedback, brain stimulation, and synthetic psychedelics most prominently — all have the same general objective of abetting a person’s search for a higher state of consciousness. But they all have their distinct ways of getting you there.

Neurofeedback devices for meditation aim to help you get into a state of calm, focused attention by tracking your brain activity and producing guiding sounds to let you know when your mind is wandering.

There are a few different ways this can work, but I’ll stick to Muse for illustration’s sake. You start by placing a headband on your forehead. Its built-in EEG sensors read your brain waves as you meditate. Some brain waves are associated with focused attention and others are associated with mind-wandering and stress; Muse’s algorithm picks them apart in real time and offers up a different cue on the phone app depending on what your mind is doing.

When your thoughts are racing, you hear loud rainstorms. “That’s your cue to go, like, ‘Oh shit! I’m thinking about the grocery list again! Back to meditation!’” Ariel Garten, the co-founder of Muse, told me.

When your thoughts are calmer, you hear quieter weather. And when you manage to sustain a deep calm for a while, you hear the rewarding sound of birds chirping.

It’s a classic “Pavlovian-type reinforcement,” according to Garten, meant to encourage your brain to remember the feel of this tranquil mental state and return to it over and over. It’s also (for better or worse) an ego boost. When the Muse app shows you your stats at the end of a session, you might find yourself thinking: “I’m crushing this. I got five birds!”

Some scientific research indicates that neurofeedback can modestly improve attention and subjective well-being. But it’s important to note that this kind of tech can, at most, help people get to an “entry-level” state of meditation — what you might call, simply, concentration. Researchers do not claim to have figured out how to lead people into more advanced meditative states yet.

Stockly, who tried neurofeedback herself as part of her research for Spirit Tech, the book she co-wrote with Wildman, told me the technology holds promise as a way to shorten people’s meditation learning curve. “I could tell when my brain was doing the right thing because I would hear the sound that was supposed to be the positive feedback,” she said. She also told me neurofeedback is just the tip of the iceberg. “It could be understood as a starter technology on your way to something a little bit more invasive, like brain stimulation.”

If neurofeedback devices like Muse only aim to “read” what’s happening in your brain and give you cues that reflect it, then another technique, brain stimulation, aims to “write” to the brain — that is, to directly change what your neurons are up to.

Here’s the basic idea: Different states of consciousness manifest in your brain as different patterns of electrical activity, or neurological signatures. Researchers have already figured out what some of them look like. Now, they’re figuring out how to technologically stimulate your brain into those states. They’re experimenting with a few types of stimulation — electric, magnetic, light, and ultrasound — to target particular brain areas.

Shooting electricity into your skull might sound painful, but it can be very gentle. There are already a few neurostimulation devices on the market, like Zendo, which come in the form of small pads or patches that you apply to your forehead; they create a tingly sensation as they send low levels of electricity into your brain. They claim to make meditation easier and reduce stress.

The scientific evidence on their efficacy is mixed. Safety-wise, they’re not required to have FDA approval since they’re not marketed as medical devices, but they’re generally considered low-risk for short-term use given that a number of stimulation methods are already approved for clinical use in treating conditions like depression. However, we lack data on the long-term effects of using neurostimulation devices continually.

Meanwhile, some researchers are pursuing a much more ambitious goal than mere stress reduction. They’re exploring brain stimulation’s potential to act as a shortcut to enlightenment.

Evan Thompson, a University of British Columbia professor who specializes in Asian philosophical traditions, notes that it’s inaccurate to talk about “enlightenment” as if it’s one monolithic thing. Instead, we have to talk about specific enlightened states. “Enlightenment means different things to different teachers, schools, and historical periods,” he said. It can mean the elimination of all craving and attachment, for example, or the dissolution of the sense of a separate self.

The latter is particularly relevant to Shinzen Young and Jay Sanguinetti, co-directors of the Sonication Enhanced Mindful Awareness (SEMA) lab at the University of Arizona. They’ve found that beaming ultrasound pulses at a certain brain area, the basal ganglia, leads to a quieting of the ego — a less self-focused state of mind.

Young, a monk who’s been meditating for 50 years, let his neuroscientist colleague Sanguinetti administer the ultrasound pulses on him. Afterward, he said it accelerated and deepened his ability to enter a state of equanimity and selflessness. In fact, he said it triggered one of the most significant meditations he’s ever had. Twelve other advanced meditators later reported similar effects.

Of course, that’s not enough to get a sense of whether it’s truly safe and effective, especially for long-term use. There’s still a lot more safety and efficacy research to be done before brain stimulation using ultrasound will be available outside of specialized labs.

“It’s not a consumer device package in Best Buy,” Garten said. “It’s far, far, far from being that. Probably 20 or 30 more years.”

In the meantime, other researchers are exploring psychedelics, which are undergoing a renaissance these days as their therapeutic potential for treating conditions like depression becomes increasingly recognized.

Many psychedelics, such as magic mushrooms and mescaline, are naturally occurring. But scientists are now busy creating synthetic versions of drugs, like pharmahuasca (synthetic ayahuasca), so the chemical components can be precisely predicted and customized. These drugs don’t just “read” what’s happening in the brain; like neurostimulation, they “write” to it directly.

Scientists have found that psychedelics can produce mystical experiences that lead to lasting changes in tolerance and openness. One study found that regular users of ayahuasca, for example, score higher than nonusers on measures of self-transcendence. Pharmahuasca has produced very similar effects, though research suggests some of the emotional benefits of traditional ayahuasca rituals may be lost when the drug is consumed outside its ceremonial context, perhaps because the intentions of the users are different.

Although some mental health professionals already use synthetic psychedelics in their clinical practices to treat patients, don’t expect to see such substances becoming legally available for self-directed use as spirit tech in the US anytime soon. Currently, Americans who want to legally try a drug like ayahuasca (natural or synthetic) have to be members of specific religious communities such as the Native American Church, or else travel to South America. That said, Wildman and Stockly report that there is an active underground market for synthetic psychedelics like pharmahuasca.

Are tech-induced spiritual experiences “authentic”? That’s the wrong question.

When people first hear about technoboosts for enlightenment, there’s a tendency to think that using technology to induce spiritual experiences is a totally new phenomenon — and that therefore a tech-induced experience is not “authentic” spirituality.

Thompson says both those premises are wrong. For one thing, people have been using tech to induce altered states of consciousness for millennia. We may not be used to thinking of tools like prayer wheels, mandalas, rosaries, or rhythmic drumming in shamanic dances as spiritual technologies, but that’s exactly what they are.

Plus, Thompson told me, “I think authenticity is a very misleading concept.”

Historically, there’s no consensus, even within a single religious tradition, about how to tell a genuine spiritual epiphany from a counterfeit.

Some believe a spiritual experience must be spontaneous to be authentic. Others believe just the opposite — that an authentic experience comes about only after someone spends lots of time and effort developing a practice.

As Stockly and Wildman write in Spirit Tech, “Some people sense that it just can’t be right that spiritual wisdom and experiences that are incredibly hard-won are just suddenly conferred on any old doofus without the exertion of effort, discipline, and commitment.”

Likewise, some groups say a spiritual experience is trustworthy if it supports their preexisting, canonical beliefs, and untrustworthy if it produces heterodox beliefs. But others say an experience is authentic precisely if it transcends convention — just think of how Jesus taught something new and different from the Judaism of his time.

Stockly, Wildman, and Thompson all told me they think it makes less sense to look at the causes or content of an experience than to look at its consequences. Another way to put this is: Don’t ask whether an experience is authentic; ask whether it’s beneficial. Does it make you more cruel, haughty, and self-centered? Or more compassionate, humble, and other-focused?

A related concern about some technoboosts is that perhaps they only lead to temporary changes — altered states, but not altered traits. If their consequences fade away within hours or days, how much good does that really do?

“It is possible just to have experiences that are something like transitory highs,” Wildman told me. But they can incentivize you to develop a continuous practice. “These incredibly powerful experiences can completely change your willingness to take on something like that.”

Stockly noted that technoboosts like neurofeedback and brain stimulation are not meant to be one-and-done. Instead, we should think of them as training wheels for the brain. “The idea is that it really is targeting the desired part of the brain in such a way that with repeated use, it will actually change the brain,” she said. “It will help to create those new neural pathways.”

Thompson, for his part, worries that such technoboosts might be counterproductive rather than beneficial — if, for example, the way the technology mediates the experience of meditation reinforces the ego tendencies that meditation is meant to alleviate. This is his concern about all the gamification the Muse app displays, from telling you when you’ve achieved a streak of consecutive days to rewarding you with bird chirps when you’ve stayed calm long enough.

“It builds up a sense of a performative, successful self,” he said. “Like, ‘Oh look, I’ve meditated a hundred days in a row now!’ It’s not only distraction, it actually reinforces precisely the thing that you’re trying to get beyond.”

Garten told me that this was a design question she “struggled with a lot.” But ultimately, she thinks you need some gamification to motivate the user to keep coming back, at least at first. And even though the birds may be distracting and ego-inflating initially, she thinks they can gradually teach the user an important lesson: equanimity. Get too excited about the appearance of a bird, and it vanishes immediately, because your excited brain state means you’ve lost the calm that hastened its arrival. In this way, you learn not to get overly invested in any outcome.

That hasn’t been my experience with Muse yet. So far, for me, the birds feel like they’re harming rather than helping my practice. But I’ve been meditating for about five years. Conceivably, for a beginner, the motivational benefits of gamification, together with Muse’s ability to show the novice meditator when they’re “doing it right,” could outweigh the costs.

There’s a less obvious risk we need to bear in mind. Instead of only asking, “What if the tech doesn’t work as advertised?” we also need to ask, “What if it does?”

On the one hand, that would be exciting. In 2005, the Dalai Lama was asked what he thinks about the possibility of tech leading to spiritual awakenings. He said: “If it was possible to become free of negative emotions by a riskless implementation of an electrode — without impairing intelligence and the critical mind — I would be the first patient.”

But most of us do not have the Dalai Lama’s training. Sudden, intense epiphanies that powerful new technology like brain stimulation aims to provoke may not have the positive effects you might expect. Normally, people build up to those epiphanies over years of practice or on long meditation retreats; the gradualness of the learning curve and the presence of mentors can help a person integrate an epiphany into their self-understanding. Spirit tech wants to offer a shortcut — to gin up epiphanies on-demand and à la carte — and the effects could be jarring.

As Sanguinetti says in Spirit Tech, “If you’re a father and you have two children, what does it mean to change you [with brain stimulation]? Because you still need to be able to take care of your children and be motivated to do that. So we don’t want to make you happy-detached, we want to make you happy-embodied and a happy, better human being in your society and the specific sociocultural context that you’re in.”

In traditional spiritual communities, the spirit tech isn’t just the meditation you do or the mushroom you ingest. There are mentors and traditions that shape how you make meaning out of a peak experience and integrate it into your humdrum life — these are technology, too. Similarly, we may need a cadre of trained people who can guide us through the process of implementing powerful new tools like brain stimulation.

Absent such a framework, Thompson remains unconvinced of the potential of such technologies.

“It strikes me as more consumerist, capitalist appropriation of meditation as a kind of narcissistic personal experience,” he said. “It’s about my enlightenment attained through techno-enhancement. Call that enlightenment if you want, but enlightenment in a richer sense is about a profound transformation not of yourself just as an isolated individual but of your relationship to other human beings in the world. It’s social.”

Reporting for this article was supported by Public Theologies of Technology and Presence, a journalism and research initiative based at the Institute of Buddhist Studies and funded by the Henry Luce Foundation.

Marcy Willis

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