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Biofeedback. Heart Rate Variability training (HRV), cheap brain wave reading/ EEG devices etc.

Schedule VIII
Noteworthy
Estimated life impact: ? years
Evidence level: Limited

The basic premise is that a lot of human health is based on our own (cognitive, physiological, etc) performance: how well can we handle stress, how well are we able to stay relaxed in difficult situations, how can we choose our own emotions and feelings etc.

It seems pretty obvious that a lot of that performance is actually learned (as opposed to being just readily present at birth). One can learn to control own emotions, stress levels, reactions, physical performance etc. It might not be learned in a sense of “I read and thought about it”, but more often in the sense of “I’ve practiced the skill and my body now does this better automatically”. And whenever we talk about a learn-able skill – there are of course issues with how fast one can learn certain things. What methods are better/worse for learning certain skills (even for just identifying which skills in which situations could be beneficial).

muse-headband-reads-your-brain-waves-wants-to-make-you-feel-better-when-you-re-stressed-463420-2Biofeedback is an attempt of the contemporary science to build devices which help to learn the cognitive and stress-coping skills faster.

There is some evidence that this works, and to many of you it might be simply interesting to experiment with, but it’s too early to talk about applicability of this approach for most people, since it’s clear that they would benefit a lot more from working on other more urgent areas of their life first. That’s why biofeedback has received such a late schedule in our analysis, even though it’s potential looks extremely optimistic.

Basics

Two technologies are prominently used: heart rate monitoring and EEG (reading brain waves off the surface of the head).

Heart rate monitoring basically comes down to measuring “Heart Rate Variability” (HRV), which is a measure of how the rate of heartbeats varies in time. It has been shown that HRV is tightly connected to the functionality of the nervous system and is a good indicator of the stress level. Higher HRV values mean better state of the body, better performance. Lower HRV means too much stress, fatigue, bad conditions.

Another parameter that is sometimes measured is Coherence. Simply put, coherence measures how similar the form of the wave of each beat is. The higher the coherence – the better. The waveform of each heartbeat is very tightly linked to the level of balance between your sympathetic nervous system and parasympathetic nervous system.

In general, HRV and Coherence parameters will be very linked and will both similarly indicate the acute state of well-being of your physiology.

 

EEG monitoring technology is used to teach subjects to reach certain “baseline” states which has been shown to have beneficial properties (like meditation). These states have been shown to have specific brain wave patterns, as compared to other less performing states.

Available devices

(Raw research report)

In this report we have tried to find consumer-based devices which would be available to a somewhat acceptable price and could be normally used in domestic, non-laboratory environments.

Heart-rate reading devices

EMWave2 (amazon order)
Official website In 2016, this is the most known, widely used device. This will most likely be your first option if you are just getting into this stuff.
Could be used with a finger-based sensor (amazon) instead of ear-based one.

Bioharness 3 (a device that you fasten on your chest, 550 USD 2016)
”It’s compatible with the BioZen app, but also has its own app that you can use to monitor your heart and respiratory rate. As I mentioned above, I’ve been impressed with the results using my BioHarness, and it’s now an everyday fixture in my life.

While it’s cheaper than a professional heart and breathing rate monitor, the Zephyr BioHarness is still freaking expensive at $549. If you just want to dabble with biofeedback, go with something cheaper. Once you decide to go full hog with the training, then you might consider investing in this device.”

AngelSensor is an open device which is a wristband that reads various health data and provides an open SDK. However, according to hrv4training.com, “The AngelSensor does not seem to be usable for heart rate variability analysis. Despite providing raw PPG data, the data seems too noisy and therefore unreliable for the level of accuracy we need when computing HRV features. On the other hand, heart rate data could be measured easily and reliably when at rest”.

For iPhone there are some apps that can actually monitor heart rate reliably enough to track HRV. These apps do not require any additional hardware and use the iPhone built-in camera in order to monitor the heart. It uses the LED to light up the soft tissue of your finger and then analyze the color variations which are produced by the varied blood pressure in different parts of the heartbeat cycle. It has actually been shown that the reliability of this approach is comparable to ear-sensors or electrical finger sensors.

According to https://www.quora.com/Is-there-any-wristband-activity-tracker-that-tracks-HRV-reliably-enough there is currently no available consumer wristband device that provides reliable HRV data. In order to do HRV training at home, the best option currently seems to be the EMWave2 device.

 

EEG (brain waves)-based devices

Muse (300 USD 2016) is one of 2-3 similar devices currently on the market. I have tried using it and it definitely works. However, I don’t know how it compares to the alternatives. Muse has an open SDK which the fans seem to be writing apps for, but it’s still early, so very few (additional, besides the official one) apps are available.

The official app basically uses Muse as a meditation assisting device. It reads the brain waves, and reports in realtime, how close do your brainwaves resemble those of a person in a state of deep meditation (the relationship has been somewhat established by prior science already). By using the feedback you can gauge your technique to find the inner calm faster and more reliably (a big issue when beginning to meditate is actually knowing whether you are doing it “correctly” or not. The Muse helps with exactly that). There are many explanatory and review videos about the “muse headband” on Youtube.

“40 Years of Zen” and Muse

Also worth to note is that there is a program in the mountains outside Seattle called “40 years of Zen“. The program consists of using advanced EEG machinery to monitor your brain state during a week-long retreat, where you are instructed on how to meditate properly, and using the EEG information from the machine as feedback. This program costs 15000 dollars, and they do sell quite a few! It has been endorsed by Dave Asprey and a lot of other people, who say that they learn more about practical meditation from that one week than from the previous several years of constant practices using different apps, courses, teachings, etc. It’s safe to say that it looks like the program gives a lot of value to these people.

The interesting thing is that Muse headband seems to not be that much different from the machines that they use on this expensive program! According to reviews of “40 years of Zen”, a lot of the focus of their teachings comes down to learning to produce certain balance of frequencies of brainwaves (like Alpha, Beta, Gamma – they are all just names for certain ranges of frequencies). QuoteAnd during our sessions, we were told to increase our alpha wave production. So as we focused on doing this, the sounds in the chamber would change accordingly.“.

But this is what Muse can do as well! It can definitely distinguish between frequencies of brain waves, and it uses those to adjust it’s audio feedback. I am sure that the expensive machines in the Seattle lab have more resolution, sensitivity, stability, etc. – but if the question is about how much Alpha waves you produce – that’s a question that can definitely be addressed by Muse. Even if with lower resolution perhaps.

The point is: knowing all of this, Muse headband seems like a bargain at 300$ a piece, and you’re likely get your money’s worth. I know I have.

It’s easy to assume that a lot of value from “40 years of Zen” comes from their guidance, as well as doing the process constantly for duration of 7 days (how long do you meditate otherwise? 20 minutes?), so you might want to add something similar to your Muse sessions, in order to try to get similar results. But the machinery itself seems very solid. Of course, you still need to find time to use it, and some general guidance/meditation skills to be able to make progress. But having feedback boosts the speed of learning dramatically in my experience.

Useful articles for understanding the role of HRV training

Life stress (medium.com/@marco_alt)

 

Available research about biofeedback

Neurofeedback training of the upper alpha frequency band in EEG improves cognitive performance (2011) (Google Scholar cited by 181 in 2016)

In this study, the individually determined upper alpha frequency band in EEG (electroencephalogram) was investigated as a neurofeedback parameter. Fourteen subjects were trained on five sessions within 1 week by means of feedback dependent on the current upper alpha amplitude. On the first and fifth session, cognitive ability was tested by a mental rotation test. Thus, eleven of the fourteen subjects showed significant training success. Individually determined upper alpha was increased independently of other frequency bands. The enhancement of cognitive performance was significantly larger for the neurofeedback group than for a control group who did not receive feedback. Thus, enhanced cognitive control went along with an increased upper alpha amplitude that was found in the neurofeedback group only.

Increasing Performance of Professional Soccer Players and Elite Track and Field Athletes with Peak Performance Training and Biofeedback: A Pilot Study (from “Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback” journal, Google Scholar found no citations 2016).

“Coping with mental stress and pressure to perform are clear demands for an optimal sports performance…
…In the field of elite sports, different biofeedback systems are increasingly used to become aware of the (stress) physiology of the athletes’ bodies and to train athletes to influence stress responses and increase performance.
…Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is another psychophysiological indicator, which can be influenced by psychological interventions as well as by physical training. HRV indices are sensitive to performance effects of physical training in team sports players (Oliveira et al. 2013). Specifically, HRV biofeedback has been related to increases in HRV parameters and consequently, in performance in golf (Lagos et al. 2011), baseball (Strack 2003) and dance performance (Raymond et al. 2005). HRV-based biofeedback training has been found to decrease perceived stress and modify the activity of the autonomic nervous system in patients with cardiovascular diseases (McCraty et al. 2003; Moravec 2008; Nolan et al. 2005) and various chronic pain conditions (Tracy et al. 2016). HRV-based biofeedback is supposed to lead to increase in resilience, health (McCraty and Shaffer 2015), focus and recovery state….”[2].

Heart rate variability biofeedback: how and why does it work?

“In recent years, there has been substantial support for heart rate variability biofeedback (HRVB) as a treatment for a variety of disorders and for performance enhancement (Gevirtz, 2013). Since conditions as widely varied as asthma and depression seem to respond to this form of cardiorespiratory feedback training, the issue of possible mechanisms becomes more salient. The most supported possible mechanism is the strengthening of homeostasis in the baroreceptor (Vaschillo et al., 2002; Lehrer et al., 2003). Recently, the effect on the vagal afferent pathway to the frontal cortical areas has been proposed. In this article, we review these and other possible mechanisms that might explain the positive effects of HRVB.”

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