FitTech Insider

What was your most important learning during the founding history of Muse, Ariel Garten?

Hitting shelves in 2014, Muse became the first widely available neurofeedback brain-sensing headband. Ariel Garten co-founded Muse as an expression of her background in neuroscience, psychotherapy, and art, with the mission to bring easy-to-use and accessible tools for well-being to the masses.

Muse is a multi-sensor meditation Electroencephalography (EEG) device that provides real-time feedback on brain activity, heartbeat, breathing, and movement to improve focus. It gives users real-time audio feedback on their meditation state during their practice, using auditory cues and offering premium guided meditations through the Muse companion app

Muse is run by a team of engineers, scientists, artists, marketers, and developers with a mission to help people live happier, healthier, and more connected lives through leading brainwave technologies and experiences. In 2020, they launched Muse S was launched to help users create healthy before-bed habits for restorative sleep. Now a household brand with 100 million minutes of meditation sessions to date, it currently holds the largest brain data (EEG) collection in the world.

Ariel Garten about her company

Who is your target audience and who is your typical Muse user?
We have a broad spectrum:
  • Individuals who have never meditated before — they know it’s good for them but don’t know how to use it. They make up a broad size of our audience.
  • Existing meditators: they have an existing practice and want to be more consistent, go deeper or learn more from it.
  • Expert meditators who want to sharpen their practice.
  • Individuals in fitness and sports who want to improve and enhance their physical performance: a Superbowl winning team; Olympians across the board in cycling, soccer, skating, and professional soccer and baseball teams. Some people are using Muse prior to their workout, others during a slow yoga routine. In the past, we also had a partnership with Smiths Optics and made the Lowdown Focus glasses with EEG technology, specifically for athletic training. It was their best-selling sports glasses.
  • People using it to enhance their mental performance, from top CEOs to mastermind groups and biohackers that want to optimize their health in a specific way. They are very engaged and want to go deeper.

All are meaningful audiences, but we see there is a heavier weighting towards older male usage.

How many users do you have? What is the split between private, B2B, and research users?
Around half a million. A lot are researchers, and there are over 200 papers published using Muse as a clinic-grade EEG and meditation intervention.

"Mayo Clinic has used it for breast cancer patients awaiting surgery: they have demonstrated that using Muse decreases the stress of surgery and increases the quality of life. There are three different user groups that used it for stroke identification in ER: they were able to identify someone having a stroke as effectively as the Gold-Standard (meaning an MRI or cat scan) in just 3 minutes."

On the B2B side, we have a corporate offering that is quite effective in improving cognitive function and markers of workplace wellness. It is also used by wellness professionals, like life coaches and psychotherapists. There are lots of different user cases building up. Muse allows people to build on top of the platform both using the consumer device and build their own applications on top of it on the B2B side. The B2C market is significantly bigger, though. 

What was your biggest mistake in business?
Thinking I needed to do it all myself. Learning to listen to other people’s inputs and not feel strongly attached to my own ideas. When you think you know the answers or that you’re right, chances are you’re not and there are other ways to do things. At times I felt this strong pull in my gut to do things that would have been wrong at the time — luckily, I had advisers around me with other opinions I could listen to. It’s hard to know what the right thing to do is. Sometimes we get stuck on an idea and because we came up with it, we believe that it’s the right one.

Also, learning business as a partnership. My family business was in real estate, where you purchase a property from someone and never see them again. Your goal is to get the best deal possible, which often leaves the seller unhappy. As soon as I went into business that required partnerships, the mentality was extremely different. You’re not trying to get the best deal but to create a win-win on both sides, a situation where both sides have understood they have succeeded and the partnership has won. It was an early lesson in my early twenties at the beginning of Muse— a shift from business being something where one party succeeds over the other, to both parties succeeding together and building a relationship that’s going to grow and flourish.

Muse uses advanced signal processing to interpret your mental activity and help guide you. When your mind is calm and settled, you hear peaceful weather. As your focus drifts, you’ll hear stormy weather that cues you to bring your attention back to your breath. (Source: Muse)

What was your most important learning during your founding history?
"The ability to accomplish whatever you want or need to, without being sucked into stories around limitations. In 2003 I said: 'We’re going to control computers with our mind'. We pulled together our team with co-founders Chris and Trevor and set out to do that.

We overcame so many technological limitations, where I could have said: “We don’t have the money, the knowledge, the skill or team — forget this, it’s going to fail.” I didn’t allow any of those to be true limitations. I thought: “We will figure out the people who know how to do this and how to fund this, and we will make this happen” and ultimately, we did. You have to pivot and maneuver along the way with the learnings you gain. 

It turned out the technology wasn’t quite ready to do thought control computing, but it could allow you to have insight and control of your own mental space, which is far more valuable. We were able to take this crazy idea and bring it to market by never allowing our own limitations to get in the way.

What changed for your company in the last 12 months?
Internally, we changed how we work together: people’s roles and responsibilities in the company. We also had to deal with people having a huge surge in the use of their devices as user behavior changed:

  • We had customers who might have not used their devices since 2014 when Muse® came out, so we had a lot of calls. It was the biggest surge in customer care we had ever seen, mainly to check if the batteries were still working or requesting new ones. The surge of people saying: “I need something for my stress” was unbelievable.

  • We have a body of guided content. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the top meditations were “Becoming your best self” and “Manifesting your dreams”. By May, “From frazzled to focus”, “Dealing with uncertainty”, and “Finding Calm during Chaos” became the most popular. Essentially, we saw a shift in patterns of usage from self-actualization and self-improvement, to finding calm and managing uncertainty during a crisis.

  • As we mapped stressful events during the pandemic (like during the riots or elections) and tracked Muse® usage, we saw two patterns: some people stopped meditating altogether, while another group that continued actually doubled down on their meditation practice.

What audiences are you not addressing that it probably should?
We are trying to address anybody we can. For a long time, we were not able to have our own internal developers building our own SDK as well as supporting customer needs, so we had to scale back on the developer support. Now we have built our resources. Like every company, it’s hard to prioritize and choose your focus but you can’t serve everybody — it’s painful when you can’t, so you need to balance.

Ariel Garten about market trends

From apps to wearable devices, the meditation space is becoming crowded. What makes Muse different from what’s on the market?
There is no other known device that lets you know what’s going on inside your mind during meditation practice. You know you have to quiet your mind, but there’s no little guru inside your head telling you what you’re supposed to be doing. With Muse you’re getting a two-way interaction. We are able to show you the brain state for meditation and focused attention, as well as when your mind is wandering, which is incredible for a novice. If you’re an expert, in a focused-attention practice you notice your mind has wandered but choose to bring it back to the breath. 

By recognizing when your mind is wandering, you’re able to train yourself to identify your wandering discourse and quickly be rewarded for bringing it back to your object of attention (your breath). It brings increased amounts of awareness to your mental space. It conditions and rewards you for staying on your breath. It’s a very precise way to teach this form of meditation.

Who are your competitors and why do you think no one has copied your format?
It turns out that creating an algorithm that knows when your mind wanders versus when it is focused is really hard. Prior to us coming out in 2014 there was no clinical-grade EEG headband that had good connectivity, was comfortable to wear, and could fit every head. It was a tough nut to solve. Others have tried to copy us and come into this space, but by now we have the marketing vehicle, the awareness, and millions of sessions — so that we are able to create valuable experiences for people.

Mental health is one of the biggest trends since the pandemic — what do you think is the most underestimated trend in the market apart from mindfulness and meditation?
The need for people to get a basic amount of exercise which I think has been achieved with things like Fitbit, so that people have awareness of their movements throughout the day.

Also, the need for people to improve their healthy eating. A portion of the population has improved their eating habits, but a large portion has to rely on frozen or quick-access food. People might be paying more attention to nutrition but there is truly no good solution for someone who doesn’t have enough time or the economic means. I helped deliver groceries to single working moms during the pandemic and saw that the stuff that is organic and healthy is expensive, while the stuff that is quick and easy to prepare was cheap. There was no good bridge in between. It’s not just about fresh grocery delivery. In order to solve the health and metabolic syndrome crisis in America and the world, you have to solve the preparation problem of fresh, unprocessed delicious food and many more pieces (including education).

About Ariel Garten

Ariel Garten studied neuroscience at the University of Toronto and worked in labs at the Krembil Neuroscience Centre. Ariel then trained as a psychotherapist, held a private practice until 2014, and also designed a clothing line. Ariel is also the co-host of the Untangle podcast where she interviews expert neuroscientists, psychologists, and meditators to help listeners learn about their brain, how it works, and how to use it to its full potential.

Ariel Garten about Ariel Garten

You have stated: “My desire is to help you do a deep dive in understanding your brain, how it makes you who you are, and how to help you manage the crazy that resides in all our minds.” So, what have you learned about your own brain in the last years?
So much. We all have these voices inside our head that we get sucked into believing and these drives that unconsciously push us that often get us into trouble. Also, there are many things we don’t do because we have fear associated with it, which comes from our amygdala. For example, when my husband and I get into a fight, this defense comes up that has me going “I’m right, you’re not right”.

I overcame this by observing my behavior during meditation using Muse and re-training my reaction. When the prefrontal cortex — the part of you able to have objectivity — comes online with your temporoparietal junction (TPJ), which is able to have perspective and empathy for the other person, they are able to observe this behavior. They can quiet the amygdala and say: “I know you’re feeling threatened, but actually it’s ok!”. After many times of running through the same cycle, because we’re human and have been wired that way for many years — in my case, 41 — the amygdala begins to hear. It calms down the emotional reactions associated with it and your prefrontal cortex is better able to see and create more logical thinking. Over time, you are better able to neural-repattern.

Are you trying to create better humans with the use of Muse®?
Yes. My deep belief is that if we all meditated and took in the principles of it: the decrease in our fear thinking; the increase in the level of acceptance and non-judgment; the decrease in our emotional reactivity; the ability to observe our own thoughts and our emotional interactions and not be driven on autopilot by these subconscious drivers; we would be better humans. We would be better able to listen to one another and self-regulate. We would make a world that is a better place. When you quiet the voice on the inside, the words outside will follow.

What is your personal physical and mental performance routine in 3 sentences?
Drink lots of water, make sure you move daily, and be joyful as you do it.

It’s the year 2026 — what advice would you give to your present-day self?
You’ll get through it. Just keep doing what you’re doing with love and joy.

If you were to write an obituary for yourself, what would it sound like?
“Ariel lived her life with joy, was able to overcome her limitations, inspire the people around her and realize she couldn’t do it all and that’s ok.”

Ariel Garten about the future

How would you describe the future of fitness and health, five years into the future?
People are more in control of their own fitness and health — they are more able to have agency and accountability in fitness. Hopefully, they have more joy and a feeling of confidence and agency throughout their life, because they have more physically engaged minds and bodies.

What’s in store for the future of Muse?
We started with a device that could measure your brain, then added sensors for the heart, breath, and body so that we could get a full picture of the individual in the process of meditation. Once we saw that people used Muse to fall asleep, we Muse® S — created a tool that tracks your sleep as effectively as a sleep lab. It allows us to do interventions to help you fall asleep, as we know what goes on in your brain during that process.

"When we think about where to go next, sleep is a huge big portion, as well as improving cognitive health and function, and also becoming a medical device — as allowing people to access this technology paid for via their health providers is really important to us. "

We are on the path to FDA approval. Creating a medical business is very long complex, from the process and documentation and certification; to selling into healthcare; creating business models in the development and sales cycle. But we now have the trust and relationships to be able to do it.
Muse S brain sensing headband helps you understand and track how well you focus, sleep and recharge so you can refocus during the day and recover each night.(Source: Muse®)

What would a New York Times headline sound like about Muse in five years?
“Muse allowed us to revolutionize preventative medicine by enabling it to be easily accessible for all.”

Ariel Garten was a speaker at the talk "Brain interfaces: Cure for the mental pandemic?" at FitTech Summit 2021. Subscribe to our mailing list here to stay up-to-date with our future events.