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Racing Brain, Meet Wearable Wellness

New Biofeedback Headbands Available at Counseling Center

By Sala Levin ’10

Writer Sala Levin wears brain-sensing headband from UMD’s Counseling Center

Writer Sala Levin ’10 wears a Muse biofeedback headband, which are available at the Counseling Center for up to two 20-minute sessions to help students reduce stress and refocus.

Photo by Stephanie S. Cordle

I’ve never been much of a birder, but right now, all I’m hoping to hear is the “tweet tweet” of a chirping songbird off in the distance somewhere. The virtual distance, that is.

I’m wearing one of eight brain-sensing headbands now available from UMD’s Counseling Center for students to check out for up to 40 minutes at a time to practice meditation and mindfulness. Made possible by an allocation of surplus funds from the Student Government Association, the personal meditation assistants are part of an effort to offer many options to meet a wide range of students’ needs, said Chetan Joshi, director of the Counseling Center.

“When students come and seek services at the Counseling Center, not everybody needs treatment,” Joshi said. “Some just need well-being-related resources.”

The headbands, made by the company Muse, extend across a user’s forehead and rest behind the ears, allowing electroencephalogram (EEG) sensors to detect brain activity from multiple spots. After downloading an app, the user is directed toward meditation exercises that encourage deep breathing and mind clearing. The level of electrical activity in the user’s brain is reflected through weather sounds: When your noggin is in a whirl, heavy rain falls, and when it’s at a more neutral state, one hears silence: All is calm. If you achieve deep relaxation, you hear birds chirp.

As someone not naturally inclined toward moments of zen, I wasn’t surprised to hear the steady patter of rain showers when I first put on the headband. As I closed my eyes and tried to shut out the chatter of my colleagues—many of whom were intrigued by the sci-fi-looking device—I focused on breathing and stillness, releasing the tension from my face and shoulders as advised by the app, which offers a series of meditation exercises.

Over the five-minute session, I managed to hear silent, uneventful weather a few times, though when I heard a coworker wondering aloud whether more COVID tests would soon be available through USPS, rain returned. I even got to hear a few bird calls—four, according to the data provided at the end of the session, which also told me that I was “calm” for a mere 52 seconds of the five minutes.

Joshi knows what it’s like to come up short on birds at first. When his septuagenarian father visited him from India, Joshi suggested that the two try using the headbands together. “I’ve always known him to be a very calm person, so he tries it, and right off the bat, at the end of his first session, he gets close to 40 or 45 bird chirps,” he says. “Whereas when I tried the first session, I got, like, three.”

For students, the headbands are an easy way to incorporate tech into their well-being practices. “There’s not a whole lot (to) learning how to use this,” he says. “Students can engage with it and learn something useful and beneficial to them.”

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