The Science of Meditation: An Interview With Ariel Garten

The Science of Meditation: An Interview With Ariel Garten

What follows is a transcript for the podcast Collective Insights -The Science of Meditation - Ariel Garten - Mind Body

In this episode we welcomed Ariel Garten, neuroscientist, innovator, and entrepreneur, and co-founder of InteraXon, the makers of Muse: the brain sensing headband, to the podcast.

Ariel guided us on a mindfulness meets science journey as we unpack the research that supports how meditation makes significant, actual changes inside the brain. She shares insider tips for using meditation as a tool for increased focus, managing anxiety, and greater self awareness.

Topics Include:

  • How meditation changes the brain
  • The magic in the mundane
  • What to do if you feel you suck at meditation
  • The science behind the Muse headband

Technology and Self Awareness 

Heather Sandison: Welcome back to Collective Insights. I'm your host today, Dr. Heather Sandison, and I'm so pleased to be joined by Ariel Garten of Muse. I clinically have seen the magical and really profound results that Muse can have for my patients, particularly those suffering with mold illness. And so I can't wait to dive into the technology, her journey to creating Muse and making it available to the public, and so thrilled to be having this conversation. Welcome to the show, Ariel.

Ariel Garten: Thank you so much. It's a joy and a pleasure to be here.

Heather Sandison: Wonderful. So tell us a little bit, kind of from a big picture perspective, how can technology help us tune in with ourselves?

Ariel Garten: So it seems kind of ironic that technology, the thing that we think that distracts us, technology, the thing that we may think is anti-human is against us, is really a tool that can get us closer to ourselves. But if applied correctly, that is the case. What Muse does is it gives you real-time feedback on your brain, your heart, your breath, and your body during meditation. And in a sense, it acts like a mirror, or a telescope, or a microscope that allows you to actually see inside. There are so many technologies over the millennia that have allowed us to really scope the self in new ways. And I mean literally a scope, like a microscope and endoscope. Meditation itself is actually an ancient technology, they just didn't have wires and electricity and refractive lenses at that time to do these kinds of investigations. So they came up with a different technology for investigating the mind and the self. So technology has a long history of being able to connect us with our inner workings in ways that we may not have had access to just on our own.

Aesthetics and the connection to calm and transformation

Heather Sandison: You do this incredible job of merging technology, neuroscience, art, design. I'm curious what you found, in terms of the connection between aesthetics and what that brings out in us?

Ariel Garten: Ooh, that is a beautiful question. So I think this is part of the gap between technology and being connected to the self. And that is the experience that technology can bring to us or art can bring to us. The experience of transformation and aesthetics and experience of things that are beautiful, or noumenal, or transformational is a really important part of the journey of being able to feel and understand the self. When we go to a movie and we have technology creating absolutely incredible, beautiful visual pictures and creating incredible deep audio landscapes, these things really move us and they bring us emotion, they bring us insight into the human condition, they bring us insight into our own reactions and experiences, they give us joy and delight, or sadness or despair or whatever it is that that technology is trying to create within us through that aesthetic experience. So there's a tremendous role for it. And I think part of why Muse has been so successful is it's not just a tool that shows you your brain, and it's like, "Okay, there it is," it actually gives you a beautiful experience of your own mind.

Heather Sandison: I think you and I both can agree that understanding and knowing ourself is important. There's a lot of others out there that aren't really interested in spending the time to explore the inner landscape. What would you say is the magic there?

Ariel Garten: It's where all the good stuff is. If we don't know ourselves, how can we improve? If we don't know ourselves, how can we fully soak into the experience of being? I mean, we could just go through life completely blindly, just doing things foot after foot, step after step, but that wouldn't be a very rich experience of life. And so just in the same way as the act of knowing another creates this incredible excitement, this closeness, the sense of intimacy, the sense of depth and possibility when you get to know someone else, so the act of knowing the self also has so many dimensions to it and excitement and depth and interest, and also holds the very exciting possibility that through this self knowledge, you could change, you could shift, you could evolve, you could improve.

Heather Sandison: I'm curious, I guess, a little bit of parenting right there, you described maybe a romantic relationship, you've created a business. Each of these experiences is challenging in some ways, and yet also extremely rewarding, and that dive into inner knowing also is fraught with that. Do you have clients of Muse, people who have Muse, who've talked about their experiences and shared some of that journey?

Ariel Garten: There's a lot. I mean, Muse is now used by over a half a million people around the world, which is kind of a crazy mind blowing stat to me. So I'm constantly meeting people, and they tell me about their experience with Muse. And they go from the simple, the, "Hey, I didn't realize I could meditate, I didn't know what meditation was, and now I can do it," to the more kind of goal oriented like, "When I do a Muse session before Wim Hof, I can do a breath hold that's a minute longer." So there's some tangible output there. To the self reflective, "When I was in the park with my child, I, for the first time, noticed my mind was wandering, and I was not actually there with them. And now that I know my mind wanders, I actually have a thing that I can do to bring myself into the present moment. To the really kind of spooky transformational, like, "When I do Muse, while microdosing, I'm able to get into this part of my brain where I see this reflection of myself that dot, dot, dot, dot, dot." So people's reflections on themselves using the tool really run the gamut, and it's very cool to see.

Mindfulness Techniques

Heather Sandison: That's great. What are your favorite mindfulness technologies and techniques?

Ariel Garten: Oh, that's a great question. I have a gazillion different techniques. That's not a technical term. A gazillion, quote unquote, techniques that I love to use. In Muse, the basic mind meditation is based on a focused attention meditation. So to focused attention meditation, you put your attention on your breath, or any object that's neutral. When your mind invariably wanders away from your breath, which all our minds do, it's your job to notice that your mind has wandered, and then to choose to bring your attention back to the neutral object. So this basic, focused-attention practice is kind of like the foundation of most of the basic meditation techniques that we use, or that you learn when you start a meditation practice.

From focused attention, then you typically move on to open monitoring. And those are mentally-focused techniques. There are also techniques where you are engaging more specifically with your body. So in Muse, for example, we let you hear the beating of your heart, like the beating of a drum. So in our heart meditation, you're listening to each and every beat of your heart, and you can hear as your heart rate increases, and as your heart rate decreases. So this is a super cool technique because it tunes your interoception, your ability to sensitively understand your internal state. And actually, as your heart rate increases and decreases, it's called your sinusoidal arrhythmia, as you breathe in, your heart rate increases, as you breathe out, your heart rate decreases, and that comprises your HRV.

So it's actually a technique that when you apply it, lets you both understand where your state is at. Are you feeling anxious, are you feeling relaxed, what's your heartbeat like? And then allows you to bring in different techniques like different breath practices, that then allow you to flex your HRV to increase your heart rate variability, and then to be able to, actually in real-time, hear the changes. So that's another cool technique.

When we dive into the world of breath, there's a pantheon of techniques simply inside of breath, whether you're trying to do box breathing, whether you're doing a extended exhale to lower your heart rate, whether you're trying to shift your CO2 levels, whether you're doing more like a Wim Hof method of breathing in which you're actually really lowering your CO2 levels in your body consistently, and then doing extended breath hold. You alternate nostril breathing, you breathe in through your right nostril to energize you or you breathe in through your left nostril to relax you. It's kind of like you've got these two levers that you can pull on either side of your nose. There's so many cool techniques.

One that I really like to do is to practice engendering different states in my body. And I will profuse myself with sensations of safety, and just really let myself sink deeply into the experience of safety and let it soak into every cell, and then profuse myself with sensations of love and let it soak in really deeply into every part of my cell. And each of these different techniques lead to different shifts in both your physiology and your mental state, and allow you to have the flexibility to move in and out of them throughout the day. I could keep going on.

How Meditation Changes The Brain

Heather Sandison: I love it. So you've talked a little bit about how meditation can shift your heart, your heart rate, heart rhythms. What about changing the brain? How does meditation change the brain?

Ariel Garten: Meditation makes significant actual change inside the brain. And now study after study demonstrates that's what happens. So there's a number of very distinctive ways in which your brain can be changed by meditation. So one, the area at the front of your head called prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain associated with attention planning, higher-order processing, organization, it's kind of the thing that makes us human and separates us from other species. And the bad news is that as you age, your prefrontal cortex unfortunately thins. The good news is if you're able to maintain a long-term meditation practice, you can maintain the thickness of your prefrontal cortex even as you age. This finding comes from the work of Dr. Sarah Lazar, where she scanned the brains of meditators and non meditators and was able to track prefrontal cortex thickness in long-term meditators to the point where one subject who was 50 years old had the prefrontal cortex thickness of a 23 year old. And so meditation-

Heather Sandison: That’s some serious motivation.

Ariel Garten: Totally. If you want even more motivation, there's amazing work by Dr. Eileen Luders, and she looks at the aging of the brain, the brain's apparent age, based on different morphological characteristics and looks at it in meditators versus non meditators. And what she unearthed is that long-term meditators have brains that on average look 7.5 years younger than non meditators.

Heather Sandison: And is that reflected in memory? Because I spend a lot of time working with patients who have dementia. And then we're all trying to optimize our cognitive function, our memories, our reaction times, things that can help us really engage in the world, at our full potential. So are there ways that this not only reduces aging, but can help us optimize cognitive function?

Ariel Garten: So in terms of memory, specifically, there's research that demonstrates that long-term meditators have been shown to have increased hippocampal volume. One of the reasons for that is probably because stress decreases hippocampal volume over time. So cortisol can lead to a shrunken hippocampi, your hippocampus is the seat of your learning and your memory. As you engage in long-term meditation practice, you're down regulating your stress and down regulating your cortisol levels, and that likely has a protective effect on the size of your hippocampus.

Another way that research looks at the impact of meditation on memory, is the impact of meditation on our working memory. So when you learn something, and you're trying to work out a problem, or you're reading a paragraph, as you read the beginning of the paragraph, and you get further down the end of it, you're working memory is holding the contents of the beginning of that paragraph in your mind as you get to the end so you can make sense out of the whole thing.

When something disrupts the contents of your working memory by distracting you, you're like, "Oh, Facebook," and you're like, "Oh, right, what was I reading?" You've just lost the contents of your working memory that's been trying to hold all of these concepts in one place. What meditation does is it helps us improve our attention and decrease our distractions. And so it becomes much easier to hold those contents of your working memory together as you put together concepts, you encode them, you encode the memories of them and you essentially learn them.

And that's why studies have demonstrated that with college students for example, you when you do a short meditation practice, an hour and a half of meditation prior to studying for your GRE, you can significantly improve your exam scores, because you're not interrupting the contents of your working memory and you're better able to retain that information.

Meditation as a tool for managing anxiety 

Heather Sandison: All of these mechanisms sound like they would also be beneficial for anxiety and depression. Are there additional mechanisms that make meditation particularly helpful for mental health?

Ariel Garten: Absolutely. So we talked about the prefrontal cortex, there's the other part of our brain, if the prefrontal cortex is the highest part of ourselves, the most evolved, there's the driver in our brain called the amygdala, which in some ways is highly uninvolved. The amygdala is the little almond shaped object in the middle of our brains, and its responsibility is to scan for danger, is the thing that is giving you the sensation of fear, anxiety, that feeling of scaredness. And when your amygdala scans and identifies something that may be dangerous, and this could be a real danger, an actual thing, a perceived danger, not an actual thing, that's something that we guess might be a problem, or even just a thought, or an image in our mind, our amygdala will fire and say, "There is a danger or a threat." And it will then send thoughts into our head about this danger, perceived or real, and send a physiological cascade in our body that prepares us to deal with this danger.

So it increases our cortisol level, spikes your blood sugars, lowers your digestion, gets you ready to deal with whatever it is and gives you that sensation in your body have a little bit of stress or anxiety or nervousness. Your brain then reinterprets what your body is telling it as like, "Oh, there really is a problem," which then perpetuates the cycle. More physiological response, more thinking, more physiology, more thinking.

What meditation does is it interrupts this loop, and it does so from multiple different dimensions. So one, from the neuro physiological point, we can actually see that long-term meditators have a decreased size to their amygdala, and decreased activation of the amygdala. So we know that meditation actually directly acts on the amygdala to quiet it. And it does that in a few ways. One, by strengthening your prefrontal cortex's relationship to the amygdala and neural projections between your prefrontal cortex and your amygdala. And your prefrontal cortex is able to kind of quiet the amygdala or ask it to down regulate, if it is able to override the situation, look around and see that everything is safe.

So it's kind of like the prefrontal cortex is the parent who's able to look around and the amygdala is the child who's having a freakout, because there's a shadow on the wall. And through meditation practice, your prefrontal cortex is able to learn to rise above your physiological experience, look at the reality of the situation, make an assessment and then communicate to your amygdala, the freaked out little child that like, "Shh, everything's okay, everything's fine."

When you have anxiety, however, or an anxiety disorder, that sensation of everything being not okay becomes overwhelming. And it becomes very difficult to be able to step outside of your situation and actually be able to find the safety that actually is there, the reality of the situation, rather than the fear that exists in your own mind and your own thoughts. So meditation is incredibly powerful to help us down regulate our amygdala. It also then works on the physiological side, as you're breathing slowly, you're now sending signals back up to your brain saying, "Nope, we're breathing slowly, therefore, everything must be okay." You're having long exhales, you're lowering your heart rate, which is another signal through your vagus nerve, that everything is okay to move into rest and digest, calm the body.

And, in case this isn't... I keep going on about the power of meditation for things like anxious thoughts. What meditation allows us to do is to also intervene in the thinking. So if we're having all of these anxious thoughts, it's very easy to get caught up in them and believe that they're true. But what meditation teaches us to do is to observe the process of our thoughts without being caught up in them. So you can say, "Hey, I have some thoughts that seem really anxious and really scared and really overwhelmed. I'm going to A, see that they're there and not engage in them. I'm going to just choose to allow them to pass and I'm not going to further and perpetuate this."

And you can check into your body and say, "Hey, I see I have some physiological response in my body, I see some tightness in my chest, my heart is beating." Rather than jumping into the fear and saying, "Oh, no, this means something's wrong." And then creating stories out of it that then spark more thought, more fear, more thought, more fear. You can just say, "I see I'm having a physiological reaction now." And not get caught up in it and not buy into it, and not perpetuate it and feed it forward. So meditation works on multiple different levels to help you manage anxious sensations and thoughts.

What if I Suck at Meditation?

Heather Sandison: These explanations are so important because so many of my patients, so many people I know, I've personally been there, I suck at meditation, right? That becomes the mantra, I was like, "I can't get into it. I'm not getting anything out of this. It's not worth my time." And so hearing all of these mechanisms, the actual things that are happening, and the studies that have been done and knowing... I think we all know that this is good for us. But securing the explanations of the why, really help to motivate, certainly me, and I'm sure others to stick with it. So what do you say to people who feel like they suck at meditation?

Ariel Garten: That it is okay to suck at meditation, it's absolutely fine. There's this big misconception that in meditation, your mind is supposed to go blank and maybe you'll levitate. And frankly, both are equally as likely. Our minds don't just go blank for long periods of time. Our minds are dynamic and engaged places. And what we're learning in basic focused attention meditation is not to make your mind go blank, it's to learn to change your relationship to your thoughts. So rather than sitting there, and then you get a thought, and you're like, "Darn, I just did it wrong, I suck at this." Instead, you sit there, you get a thought, you notice that thinking is happening, that you got a thought, you let that one pass, you come back to your breath. Eventually, you get another thought, totally okay, all our brains think, really normal.

The question is, when you get that thought, what do you do with it? Do you move into the place of self judgment and frustration? Or do you simply accept that this is what happened, and then make a different choice? And that's another tremendous power that meditation gives us, the ability to accept what is, not fight against that which we can't change, but be able to make smart, good choices based on what is happening in that moment, rather than the desire to torment ourselves because we are something that we are not, or to change situation over which we have no control. And you discover that when you simply allow and make a different choice, life becomes so much easier.

How gratitude practices change the brain

Heather Sandison: Gratitude, forgiveness, loving, kindness, mindfulness, these are all kind of slightly different paths that people can take. Maybe you can even call them different technologies or techniques. Do you have a favorite? Are there different things that we get out of these different pieces of meditation? Or would you recommend somebody do a smattering of all of them?

Ariel Garten: Do a smattering of all of them. We really do get different things out of each practice. So in the focused-attention practice, for example, you are strengthening your attention, you're strengthening your prefrontal cortex, you're learning to observe your thoughts, you're learning to get out of your wandering thoughts. There's so many pieces in that practice. But it also requires the heart part of it, the original Buddhist notion of meditation involved many pieces, the biggest of which is compassion and quelling the suffering, the suffering of the self and the suffering of others. And so compassion practices, for example, where you learn to have both compassion for yourself, and compassion for others, is a critically important part of the skill that we learn when we learn to evolve as a human within our meditation practice.

And gratitude practices, for example, have been demonstrated to actually change the structure of your brain as well, by wiring you towards more positivity, wiring you to be able to look for the positive things in your life. A gratitude practice is also an incredibly powerful tool to be able to shift your mood, and shift your mentality in a minute, or a minute or two of the practice. So each of these practices have their own impact mentally, neurally, physiologically, and socially, and they each have an important role.

Heather Sandison: So why not give the benefit of all of them? When I was listening to your... I think it was your TED Talk, you mentioned the word retreat, and how when we talk about going on retreat, and I'm certainly guilty of this, it's like I think, "Okay, I'm going to dive deep for a weekend, or I'm going to go up to Esalen and have a week. I'm going to go do this retreat." And then that's going to inform my real life when I come back. But my daily practice kind of slips. So you talk about retreat being something that a military does, and it's sort of a negative thing. I remember and I was like, "Wow, I've never thought about it that way." So I really appreciated that perspective. And I wanted you to talk a little bit more about how we bring this more powerfully into our day to day lives.

Ariel Garten: Having a regular meditation practice is key. And just going away for a couple days and figuring your life out and coming back to it, and then everything being the same a few days later, is not really useful. And so just in the same way that going to the gym once will make you a little bit stronger that day, but going to the gym absolutely three times a week or every day or whatever is right for you, sets you up for a lifetime of strength and longevity. So meditation is a regular practice that you need to be doing. And really, that's why we built a tool like Muse, something that gives you a thing you do regularly, so that you can see your progress. So it doesn't seem like it's all weird and mystifying, and just a thing you suck at. It's really like having a coach or a buddy there that actually helps you do it each and every day, and get the reward from it daily.

The science behind the muse headband

Heather Sandison: Can you describe just exactly how Muse works? So would I use it several times a day, once a day, several times a week, when I'm exercising, sleeping? What would a typical user of Muse, what would their day look like in terms of how they're engaging with the technology?

Ariel Garten: Sure. So we have two different Muse devices now. Muse 2, which is daytime only, and Muse S, which is day and night. So when you're using Muse as a meditation tool, you slip it on your head, connect it to your phone, and what it's doing is it's giving you real time feedback on your brain during meditation. So that you know when you're focused and when your mind is wandering, it's kind of like having a little coach in your head letting like, "Oh, mind is wandering, come on back. Yep, you're in the right place, you're doing it right." And so it really gives you this feedback. And it has a range of different meditation techniques for brain, heart, breath, body, as well as a range of guided meditations.

In terms of meditating with Muse during the day, I would say probably 30%, 40% of people do it in the morning, 6:00 and 7:00 AM being the most popular times. The rest of people typically do it in the evening when they come home from work. And then people also seem to be doing it during the day in schedules that work for them. So typically, people have a meditation practice that they do for three to five minutes, if you're a beginner, you don't have to do it for as long as you're starting, up to 20 minutes, depending on what's right. Some people do it for an hour, but that takes up a big chunk of most people's days

And so people find themselves doing a regular practice. Then we often see people also bringing in Muse kind of as needed throughout the day, if you're having an emergency or something that's overwhelming, you just want to do a session to calm down. And then as a tool at night, if you have Muse S, you can use it to help you fall asleep. So we have these beautiful guided meditations that actually bring you into the hypnagogic state, which is the gateway for sleep, and create a soundscape from your body in a way that's designed to help you fall asleep faster by actually training your own bio rhythms. So it's giving you biofeedback to shift your bio rhythms into sleep. Then it also tracks your brain throughout the night. So you end up getting really laboratory-grade clinical, EEG polysomnography that show you what's going on in your brain, heart, breath and body while you sleep.

Heather Sandison: That sleep efficiency score that's calculated, what is that calculated using? Is there oxygen saturation levels, I know you said that there's EEG, so there's wavelengths. Is there something else that's in there? You said polysomnography, what somebody would be getting overnight at a hospital?

Ariel Garten: Yeah. So polysomnography system is what they use in a real sleep lab. And what we have in Muse is EEG, HRV, temperature, movement, so accelerometer, gyroscope, and a few other sensors. So there really is a full sensor suite there on your head. And in the sleep efficiency score, what we're looking at is how you move, the amount of time that you are in for each of the states of sleep, stage one, two, deep sleep and REM sleep. And then we're also looking at the length of your sleep, the length of each stage, how often you end up in each stage, and then comparing that to an average of people your age and your gender to then determine how well you have slept.

Heather Sandison: Would it maybe trigger someone to get a sleep study? Because oxygen levels at night are certainly something that can promote brain health or really destroy it pretty quickly if you're not getting good oxygen to your brain at night. So would Muse be something that someone could kind of use to see, "Do I need to elevate this? Do I need to go see a sleep doctor or a dentist maybe to get a device?" Would it give you that kind of information?

Ariel Garten: So Muse currently doesn't diagnose sleep apnea. Although it has a lot of the capabilities to do that, because that's a clinical diagnostic. It's not something that we currently offer. But it does give you very detailed features of your sleep. So for example, when you're in deep sleep, we can show you your level of deep sleep and your amount of deep sleep, which no other device can. And so it could be something where you see your sleep characteristics, and you see that they are way off, that could be a great prompt to go to the doctor. It's also a great prompt to really try a range of well-known ways to improve your sleep, like limiting your amount of caffeine, putting on orange glasses an hour and a half prior to bedtime, consistent wake-up times, etc.

Heather Sandison: I'm sure you've thought about this. And I have a handful of patients that are quite sensitive to EMFs. So with the Muse product, you're connecting to your phone and there is some... Bluetooth is what's being used there, right?

Ariel Garten: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Is EMF exposure a concern when using muse technology?

Heather Sandison: And so what do you think about, in terms of the EMF concern, is it a concern or not a problem at all for your users?

Ariel Garten: So we haven't actually had anybody come to us and say, "I can't use this because of EMF. So that's pretty good news.

Heather Sandison: That's great.

Ariel Garten: Yeah, so we haven't found it to be an issue. it's Bluetooth low energy, it's pointing away from the head and towards your phone. And really the amount of EMF in the device is orders of magnitude less than your phone is, even when the phone is sitting far away from you. So we haven't found it to be an issue. Of course, everybody has their own range of sensitivities, but for the general population, it's been tested by many electrical laboratories and certified, and so far it seems to be great.

The latest research at muse

Heather Sandison: That's awesome. Yeah, and I have some sensitive patients who have used it very successfully, and it actually helps them get over some of the sensitivities. So I was curious if you had found anything different. I'm curious also about the latest research at Muse and I know this is a science, it's a technology. What are the questions that you guys have there? And how are you answering them?

Ariel Garten: We have so many questions. So many questions trying to understand the relationship between what goes on in the mind and the heart while you meditate, or how do you create experiences that really help people transform? How do you give people great sleep? How do you mix this with psychedelics in order to make the best psychedelic experience? And how do you help people not just fall asleep, but stay asleep? How do you help people enhance their experience of dreaming? How do you use sound and light technologies to create altered states? These are all research questions that we have actively going at this moment trying to find the answers to within our own lab and within our own experience.

And here, I should really shout out Chris Aimone, he was my co-founder and truly the technical and spiritual guru behind Muse. He's an extraordinary inventor. And he's really the one that shapes and creates the experiences both from the emotional end and spiritual end, as well as the technological end. He's really the guy that's in the trenches asking and answering these questions and creating the technologies that enable discovering these solutions.

Heather Sandison: The parent company's name is InteraXon, right?

Ariel Garten: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Heather Sandison: And then Muse is a product that InteraXon makes, do I understand that correctly?

Ariel Garten: Yeah, totally correct.

Heather Sandison: Is the future, and I'm speculating here, I want to know, is the future of InteraXon that Muse has lots of brothers and sisters, that there's basically a whole menu of options in terms of tools that you can use to deepen the experience of ourselves?

Ariel Garten: Yeah, that seems to be what we're building. We started with Muse just as the brain sensing headband that helps you meditate. And then we got more deeply engaged in the different systems, the body, the brain, the heart, the breath, during meditation, and now we're very deeply engaged in sleep. I've also just created a course for pain management, we're continuing to find the different areas that these technologies can really help us understand and enhance. And then at the same time, we have researchers that use Muse, so there's now literally thousands of researchers that use Muse in their practice.

And some of the recent publications. There are two different groups that use Muse to identify stroke in the ICU. One group in Israel, another group out in University of Alberta, and both groups were able to, within a very short period of time, one of the groups was just three minutes per session, identify patients as having stroke or not stroke, and do it as effectively as the gold standards of a CAT scan or an MRI machine. So that's just one example of research that has nothing to do with us, but using the newest technology that likely will someday get to commercialization through their own means.

Heather Sandison: And from a practical perspective, just thinking through this as a doctor, if I have someone in a rural setting who can't get to an MRI, or a CAT scan, and they can have a Muse headband and be identifying what's going on, even if it's just getting the reassurance that it's not a stroke, that is so valuable.

Ariel Garten: Yeah, we're not there yet. And can't make any claims that this can do that now, but two different groups, independently, were able to identify and verify those metrics, and publish in fantastic journals. So really good indications.

And the same in cognitive function. There have now been multiple different groups that have been using these to identify mild cognitive decline. So one research group out of Baycrest Hospital run by Allison Sekuler, another research group at the University of Victoria, both using Muse to identify mild cognitive impairment. And then the researcher from the University of Victoria, Olav Krigolson, he just did this really cool paper that looked at 1,000 individuals and their cognitive fatigue using Muse. So he was able to identify cognitive fatigue just with an individual, not in the lab, in their own home, self identification. Again, it's not a medical claim, it's not yet a product, but really, really amazing research directions.

Heather Sandison: And I would imagine that the next step, and that is, okay, can you reverse it? 

Ariel Garten: Sure. How do you then reverse the cognitive decline, how do you then reverse the fatigue, and how do you demonstrate that that's what's happening? And the cool thing about looking at your brainwaves is that it gives you a hint about what needs to be done in order to reverse.

Heather Sandison: And the device itself is giving you some feedback.

Ariel Garten: Yeah, so when you're doing a Muse session, you're getting real-time feedback on your focused attention versus your mind wandering. We have another company that builds on our platform called Mindlift, and they've actually created entire neurofeedback suite for neurofeedback clinicians using Muse, and their target there is on ADHD. And that's a product that's already in market with ADHD clinicians who do neurofeedback.

Heather Sandison: How exciting. What are you most excited about in terms of the future of InteraXon?

Ariel Garten: All of it. I mean, the real excitement there is giving people the possibility and opportunity to transform and evolve in ways that are within their own control. The real opportunity there is giving people insights about their mind, their thought processes, their physiology in a way that allows you to be a smarter, sharper, nicer, kinder, more loving person.

Female empowerment, self efficacy, and perseverance

Heather Sandison: You regularly speak about female empowerment and entrepreneurship. Is there support that you wish you had had while building and fundraising?

Ariel Garten: That's a great question. So I was building and fundraising this, by now, well over a decade ago. And at that point, there really wasn't any infrastructure for female entrepreneurs. I think I just got really lucky, somebody with this crazy idea that we can engage computers with our mind, that we can bring this technology to market. And it was really just... I don't even know how I got to market it, lot of perseverance, confidence and dumb luck. But there really wasn't the kind of support system either from a funding perspective or a mentorship perspective that we have now for female entrepreneurs. And so I really focus on giving back and encouraging from a financial perspective and a mind state perspective, female entrepreneurs to bring their innovations to market.

Heather Sandison: Yeah, what do you hope the next generation of female leaders learn from you?

Ariel Garten: I think the most important thing that I took away from how I did this, was I had this uncompromising belief in myself, an uncompromising belief that this was possible, this crazy idea was truly possible, and I really could do it. It didn't matter that I didn't have the degree in business, it didn't matter that I didn't have millions of dollars in my pocket, that I didn't know how to program. All of these factors, which could have very easily been a strike against me and caused me to pack up and go home, I didn't take as limitations. And instead of being frustrated or made smaller, limited by the fact that I didn't have these skills and resources, I went out and engaged people that did and brought them into the fold and onto the team.

And I think probably the biggest driving factor in Muse's initial success, other than Chris's technological brilliance, was this unwavering belief in myself and belief in the fact that doing this was possible, and that I could probably do anything I put my mind to. And that's what allowed the team to come together, the funding to be given to us, this impossible feat at the time, in the early 2000s, to have a brain, computer interface device that could help you meditate in Best Buy was unheard of. And that's what we accomplished. And it really was not the power of belief in some like mystical way, but the real power of believing that one is capable of things that are so far beyond you, and that belief in the self driving you to get beyond your fears and get beyond your limitations and get beyond any negative self talk to simply make things happen.

Heather Sandison: And I'm sure meditation helped with that.

Ariel Garten: Yes, Yes, it certainly did. And conversely, there are lots of mistakes that I made at the time, because I wasn't wise, because I was impulsive, because I didn't have years of a meditation practice that I now have giving me the skills to be able to move much more smoothly and gracefully throughout the world. So had I done it at this point in my life, it would have been done very differently, but it got accomplished.

Heather Sandison: And that wavering commitment, both to yourself and to this idea, it requires perseverance. So it requires getting up the next day after someone's told you no, it requires really seeing this through. What helped you do that?

Ariel Garten: Naivety. A great mixture of naivety and, again, that belief in myself. And I heard no so many times, and every time somebody said no, I didn't totally hear it because I was so deeply engaged in the understanding that this was going to happen. And if somebody said no, they were simply not the right fit for it. And if I had enough drive and tenacity, I could find the right solution.

Heather Sandison: So what do you hope that those women have that you didn't? Again, I want to go back to sort of that idea, what they will learn from you. But then now 20 years later, what do they have that maybe might have held them back 20 years ago? It didn't hold you back, but how can you help... I think what you mentioned is you're paying it forward. What do you see that as, what is that thing that they can get now that wasn't accessible 20 years ago?

Ariel Garten: Well, funding, for example, is a huge thing that was not accessible 20 years ago. I was an entrepreneur in Toronto, Toronto did not have a very developed funding scene at that point. I went down to Silicon Valley and met people. I knew absolutely no one and was thrown into VC meetings. And at that point, being a little 5'2" girl from Toronto with long hippie hair was not an easy way to get yourself funded in Sand Hill Road in Silicon Valley, when you knew no one and you had no support and no connections and nobody vouching for you.

Somehow I managed to figure it out and raised $18 million in venture funding from top VCs, including Silicon Valley. But to call that a fluke is probably pretty accurate. And these days, there are an abundance of funding mechanisms for women. I'm an investor in [inaudible 00:44:12], for example, which is a beautiful fund that's specifically focused on funding women and particularly funding femtech. And there are many, many incubators and mentors and funding sources specifically focused on elevating and supporting female entrepreneurs. So that's just one tangible example of something that I'm grateful that exists now but didn't before.

Heather Sandison: Yeah, that's so exciting. How can people find out more, basically? You have so many talks that you've done that are highly accessible online and really brilliant, and I've learned so much in just preparing for this call. And also Muse is available, how else can people find out more about you?

Ariel Garten: So if you want to find Muse, you can go to If you want to find more about me and some of the talks, etc., you can go to actually, and some of my content is there. And you can also follow me on Instagram @ariels_musings, Twitter, ariel_garten, and of course, on all the platforms @choosemuse.

Heather Sandison: So as a clinician, if I wanted to use Muse more in my practice, how would I do that?

Ariel Garten: So we actually have a dashboard called Muse Connect, and what Muse Connect allows you to do is actually see each of your patients who are using Muse and see their results and their progress with their permission. So we have a lot of clinicians, as you do as well, who bring Muse into their practice and offer it to their patients, either through an affiliate or ambassador program, or they can purchase it online independently. And then Muse Connect allows them to really stay connected to the patient and support them in their meditation journey.

Heather Sandison: Wonderful. I'm so excited to have had this conversation. I've learned so much from you and I'm really excited for our listeners to hear more, I'd love to be able to link to some of the research that you talked about in our show notes. So maybe if we can connect after, we'll get some of those papers that you talked about out to our listeners. It's been an absolute pleasure to have you today. I've learned so much. You're very, very inspiring. And it gives so many practical tips that I know will help everyone who's listened today. Thank you so much for your time.

Ariel Garten: Oh, thank you. It is such a joy and such a pleasure. I'm wishing everyone so much love.

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