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2 New Tech Gadgets to Help You Focus, Relax and Sleep

By JESS BARRON

According to the American Psychological Association (APA)’s 2010 Stress in American survey nearly 70 percent of Americans experience physical and mental symptoms of stress, but only 37 percent think they are doing very well at managing stress.

And then there’s distraction. A 2010 Harvard University study found that 46.9 percent of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they're doing, and this mind-wandering typically makes them unhappy. (Wait a second, what was I just typing? I have to update my Facebook status and check my Twitter @replies.)

Sounds like we could all use some extra relaxation, calmness, focus and mindfulness!

Here I am wearing the Muse headband at my desk at the office.

Here I am wearing the Muse brain-sensing headband at my desk at the LIVESTRONG office. Yes, they are used to me doing weird things here.

It turns out, we need more sleep too. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) calls insufficient sleep “a public health epidemic.”  They cite research saying that an estimated 50-70 million U.S. adults have sleep or wakefulness disorder.

And many people in the U.S. are turning to tranquilizing drugs or sleeping pills to help solve these issues. One recent survey of National Ambulatory Medical Center Survey (NAMCS) data found a 12.5 percent annual increase in prescriptions for benzodiazepines such as Xanax and Valium.

And then there are the over the counter alternatives such as TylenolPM, ZZZQuil and the hormone melatonin. Sleep-assistance industry revenues were at $32 billion in 2012, though according to the Washington Post, the research on these over the counter sleep aids’ true effectiveness in getting any of us a good night’s sleep is limited.

Technology is often blamed for causing us all this stress and insomnia. Perhaps somewhat ironically, there have been some smart people creating gadgets to help solve the problems of stress and insomnia.

Bring on the Muse brain-sensing headband (and its companion mobile app) to help provide calmness, focus and relaxation in just three minutes, and The Dreampad pillow and its companion mobile app which promises to help us sleep more quickly and more deeply.

That’s right, just like we’ve been using the FitBit Flex, Jawbone Up, Nike Fuel Band, Polar heart rate monitor, Shine fitness tracker, Withings scale and Strava and RunKeeper apps to help monitor and increase our fitness, there are now gadgets that can improve our relaxation and sleep quality too.

So, of course, I had to check them out. Do they live up to the promises?

1. Muse Brain-Sensing Headband

The Muse brain-sensing headband — created by 35-year-old psychotherapist and neuroconsultant Ariel Garten and her Toronto-based company called InteraXon, looks a little bit sci-fi cyborg, but it’s well-designed and fairly comfortable to wear. Most importantly, it was amazingly effective at helping me to focus and relax quickly and motivate me to use it to relax more often.

This is what the Muse brain-sensing headband looks like.

This is what the Muse brain-sensing headband looks like.

The headband contains seven electroencephalography (EEG) sensors (five on the forehead and two behind the ears) and it is able to detect and measure brain activity in the same way that a heart rate monitor measures your heart rate.

When you put it on, it connects via Bluetooth to your smartphone or tablet and integrates with the Muse Calm app. First, it calibrates to be sure that it is picking up your brain’s activity from all seven of the sensors. To calibrate, it asks you to think the answers to a few quick questions such as bodies of water, famous authors, professions or cities. Once the Muse is calibrated, you begin the calmness and meditation exercise. You can choose to do a 3-minute, 5-minute, 7-minute or 12-minute relaxation session. When the meditation begins, the app tells you to close your eyes, sit up straight and still with shoulders relaxed, eliminate all thoughts and breathe naturally. It asks you to try to think of nothing else and simply count each time you exhale.

There is also a white version of the Muse headband, which this woman tried.

There is also a white version of the Muse headband, which this woman tried.

Then the session begins, you hear the relaxing sound of soothing waves during the exercise. It also visually shows a beach and dune grass and a sunny sky — but you’re supposed to keep your eyes closed so you shouldn’t be looking at the display too much… As soon as thoughts start to pop into your head, the Muse knows! When your mind begins to wander, you’ll begin to hear strong winds. And visually clouds begin to form in the sky. I know this because whenever I opened my eyes, there would be too many thoughts in my head and the sky would cloud up and it was a windy day, unpleasant day at the beach. To make the wind sounds go away, all you have to do is clear your mind of thoughts and go back to simply observing and counting your exhalations.

Earlier this year, I learned Transcendental Meditation and my teacher said that it was OK to have thoughts during your meditation and when you realize you’re having them, you just let them go gently. Another instructor, compared letting the thoughts go to watching clouds float across the sky. You do that literally when you’re using the Muse Calm app!

There’s even a reward when you keep your mind completely calm and empty of thoughts — birds begin to arrive and you will hear their relaxing chirping sounds. The longer you manage to keep the toughest out of your head, the birds start to multiply into an entire flock. Trouble is, if you begin to think too much about the birds and how you want them to stay, then thoughts enter your mind and the brain-sensing headband recognizes the thoughts and the birds go away, and the unpleasant wind noises might start again.

Here are the stats on one of my Muse relaxation sessions from this morning.

Here are the stats on one of my 7-minute Muse relaxation sessions from this morning.

A pleasant noise sounds when the session time is up and the Calm app displays a dashboard showing the number of seconds your mind remained calm, neutral or active, and it provides you with a points-based grade of your performance. Talk about “quantified self” – Muse was literally mapping my brain’s behavior!

And then there’s the gamification of meditation.  For example, you get three points for every second you were calm and one point for every second your mind remained neutral. During this 7-minute session, I was told that I was 33% calm, and I earned 612 points! You need to use Muse enough to earn 5,000 points in order to unlock its more advanced functions, so that alone is incentive enough to keep using it in the beginning. Each time you use Muse, your brain reacts a bit differently, so it’s very interesting to see.

Here's the pie chart from my Muse session, showing that I was 33% calm.

Here’s the pie chart from my Muse session, showing that I was 33% calm.

According to the materials that come with the Muse, it picks up five different types of brainwaves:
* Delta waves which are most present during sleep.
* Theta waves which are associated with sleep, very deep relaxation, and visualization.
* Alpha waves which occur when relaxed and calm.
* Beta waves which occur when, for example, actively thinking or problem-solving.
* Gamma waves which occur when involved in higher mental activity and consolidation of information.

Who Is Muse Best For: People who have trouble relaxing, sitting still and being mindful or meditating. It also seems great to help people relieve anxiety and perhaps to bring focus to those with ADD or ADHD.

Positives About Muse: The Calm app makes it rewarding to aim for more calm and meditative states of mind and it incentivizes you to do more sessions.

Negatives About Muse: The $299 price tag may make your heart rate go up and break you out of your meditative state. But for anyone who truly struggles with anxiety and lack of calm or focus, this could be money well-spent. It’s relative in cost to several sessions with a massage therapist or psychotherapist. On the other hand, meditation technically costs nothing (unless you paid to be trained in a form of meditation such as transcendental meditation), so if you can do meditation at home for free and you already have a meditation practice — you may not need this, unless you are curious to see your brain’s patterns of calmness versus activity during a relaxation session.

Where to Buy Muse: Muse is currently being sold exclusively on Gaiam.com through the end of October. Here is the link to get more info or buy it.

Here’s Muse co-founder Garten giving a TEDx talk on how our own brain activity gives new meaning to the ancient dictum “know thyself.”

2. The Dreampad Pillow

The Dreampad Pillow — created by a Colorado company called Integrated Listening Systems — plays ambient music and vibrations to help relax you into a deep sleep. It’s a thin rectangular-shaped pad that actually goes inside your pillowcase and on top of your existing pillow, though it can also be used alone. It was initially developed to help calm autistic children, but then the children’s parents started putting their heads on the pillow and noticed that it induced sleep and relaxation for them too.

The Dreampad Pillow. Photo courtesy of Integrated Listening Systems.

The Dreampad Pillow. Photo courtesy of Integrated Listening Systems.

You plug your iPhone in and the pillow plays ambient music using bone-conduction technology -- this means that sound is delivered through vibrations on your skull.  So, no headphones are needed, and your sleeping companion won’t hear it at all. For those who are concerned about having your mobile phone in your pillow near your head all night (which I am somewhat), you can put your phone in airplane mode so that it doesn’t receive signals. There is also a new bluetooth accessory that allows your phone to be in another room.

You get to select your choice of soundscape from five different options. I chose one called “Seaside Strings;” it consists of ocean waves and viola.

Image courtesy of Integrated Listening Systems

Image courtesy of Integrated Listening Systems

When I first put my head down on my pillow, I didn’t think it was working. You don’t actually hear the sounds until your head is down on the pillow. My husband could not hear them at all. You can adjust the volume as needed.

That first night, I drifted off to sleep fairly quickly and I only recall waking up once in the night and then the sounds of The Dreampad lulled me back to sleep.  Overall, I was fairly pleased with how it works. I would turn to trying The Dreampad rather than taking an over the counter sleep aid such as TylenolPM, ZZZQuil or the hormone melatonin to get a good night’s sleep, but I don’t use it every night.

Who Is The Dreampad Best For: People who have trouble sleeping and staying asleep, who may enjoy sounds or music but don’t want to wear earphones or worry about bothering their sleeping companions.  Anyone who is taking prescription sleep aids such as Ambien or Xanax or over the counter sleep aids such as TylenolPM, ZZZQuil or the hormone melatonin.  The Dreampad can also be used by children and teens, and it has been studied to calm autistic children as well as people with Alzheimers and cancer.

Positives About The Dreampad: Every Dreampad comes with a 30-day Trial Period, after which if you are not happy it can be returned. The people at Integrated Listening Systems have been doing studies involving The Dreampad. According to their website, “Preliminary data shows that the Dreampad stimulates our body's relaxation response, which allows us to let go of stress and fall asleep. Along with the decrease in sleep-related problems comes improvement with daytime performance, including physical, emotional, social and executive functioning. Studies to date have included children and adults, with both groups seeing equal benefit.”

Negatives About The Dreampad: If you are very particular about your pillow — as I am — you may not tolerate any added thickness to it.  I sleep on a contoured Essentia natural memory foam pillow, and I found the additional thickness of The Dreampad (although it is a very thin pad) to be irritating to my neck. Also, if you are someone who sleeps by shifting between lying on your back and on your sides during the night, getting the The Dreampad’s volume correct can be problematic. You will hear the Dreampad more strongly when you are on your side with your ear pressed into the pillow and the sound will be more faint when you are on your back.

Where to Buy Dreampad: The Dreampad costs $179, and it can be purchased at Dreampadsleep.com. There is a 30-day return policy where you can return The Dreampad within 30 days and get your money back if you are unsatisfied with the product.

Readers - Have you tried any apps, gadgets or devices to help you stay fit, relax or sleep better?  Which one have you tried and how did it work for you?  Leave a comment below and let me know.

Jess Barron is Editor-in-Chief of LIVESTRONG.COM. Read some of her other health and fitness articles here. A longtime foodie and fan of farmers markets, Jess particularly loves heirloom tomatoes, fresh figs with burrata cheese, and anything with pumpkin or peanut butter in it! Her love for food fuels her desire to exercise daily. In the summer of 2012, Jess lost 20 pounds in a test group for a new fitness program. Some of her favorite workout routines include walking, running, yoga, P90X, INSANITY and mixed martial arts. Jess's writing can also be found at Poprocks.com. She has appeared on MSNBC's The Most, ABC News Now and XM satellite radio , and her writing has appeared on Wired.com and Yahoo.

Follow Jess on Twitter @jessdandy. Also, you can add her on Google+ and follow her on Pinterest.

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