Updated: Dec 15, 2022
More and more technologies are emerging that allow us to measure and monitor our physiological states. What we can measure, we can monitor; what we can monitor, we can change. Technologies that were once available only to researchers in well-funded laboratories are becoming more accessible and affordable. As a former Director of Academic Technology and a long-time meditator, I am interested in exploring the intersection where mindfulness, neuroscience/biology, psychology, and technology meet.
There are new and promising technologies emerging every year with the potential to transform lives. Below is an incomplete list of my favorite apps and technologies. I stress that this list is incomplete. There are functional near infrared spectrometry headsets (FNIRS), heart rate variability monitors, transcranial magnetic stimulators, EEGs, pulse oximeters, and transcranial direct current stimulation (TDCS) devices to name a few. I purchased what I could afford on an educator's budget. I am not endorsed by any of the technologies/apps/products listed here.
1. Insight Timer
Insight Timer is a free meditation app. That's the first reason I appreciate it. Other popular apps like Headspace and Calm require subscriptions whose costs may be prohibitive for some. As an IT guy, I understand that creating and sustaining apps takes a lot of money. DevOps and software engineers, cloud infrastructure, developers and analysts don't come cheap. Insight Timer has a donation based model, consistent with how meditation has been traditionally transmitted. Meditation has been taught freely for millennia. There are thousands of meditations from hundreds of traditions- secular to religious. This is the second reason I recommend the app. Many of the world's most renowned teachers have uploaded content to Insight Timer. Thirdly, the timer function is excellent. It is what I use daily. I've created over 140 presets for different practices. For example, if I want to train concentration, I use interval bells to remind me to reorient my attention should the mind wander from the primary object of focus. If I were circuit training, starting with pranayama, then focused attention, a body scan, a visualization, and closing with a loving kindness meditation, I could choose a 30 minute bell with 5 intervals. Fourth, there is an active community on Insight Timer. I've connected with many like-minded people I might not have otherwise have had the opportunity to meet.
A drawback is that anyone can upload meditations- charlatans and novices alike.
2. Oura ring
Meditators attend to conditions that affect their practice, and sleep is one of the most impactful. I bought the Oura ring to track sleep. There are other products like Whoop, Fitbit, and smartwatches that also track sleep.
The Oura uses infrared light to measure heart rate, respiratory rate and heart rate variability. Additional sensors monitor skin temperature. Pulse oximetry tracks blood oxygen saturation. This data, paired with an accelerometer (for movement tracking) allows Oura to capture data which is sent to an app for review and analysis. The data is granular and allows me to experiment with variables that might improve the quantity and quality of my sleep.
To live mindfully, we attend to fundamentals. Meditation, a good night’s sleep, a balanced exercise routine, and a nutrient dense diet are some of the habits that promote not only physical well-being, but mental clarity, improved concentration, and emotional balance.
I ordered InsideTracker's Ultimate Plan which tests up to 43 blood biomarkers—including glucose, cholesterol, cortisol, and hemoglobin. I had my blood drawn and was eager to see my results.
95% of my biomarkers were within optimal range. Results tagged with a yellow dot indicate that those markers, while within a healthy range, could be improved. My HDL levels are below optimum. HDL helps protects against damage to the cardiovascular system by removing excess LDL (the "bad cholesterol") from the bloodstream. My sugar levels (glucose & HbA1c), by contrast, are above optimal.
I started a no-sugar recently and will continue for 3 months until I take a follow-up test. My sugar will come from fruits and vegetables. I also started taking spirulina, a blue-green algae, which reduces the rise in blood sugar following a meal (called postprandial glucose). Spirulina has also been shown to be effective at lowering high levels of fasting glucose. I'm consuming probiotic foods for breakfast (miso and unsweetened Greek yogurt). Fasting glucose levels improve after regular consumption of probiotic foods. InsideTracker provides evidence-based recommendations and links to quality peer-reviewed studies. Based on that, I bought an ALA supplement (alpha lipoic acid). ALA can lower blood sugar levels by reducing excess fat in muscle cells.
ALA also acts as an antioxidant to reduce free radicals. Free radicals, if left unchecked, can cause oxidative stress, which contributes to body-wide inflammation. Inflammation is the body's response to a problem. High-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hsCRP) is an inflammation biomarker. ALA can decrease CRP by about 38%.
My hsCRP levels can be improved. I'll switch from coffee to green and black tea. Black tea is prepared from the leaves of Camellia sinensis. Compared to green tea, black tea has been oxidized for a longer time resulting in darker color and stronger flavor. Black tea contains the polyphenols catechin, theaflavin and flavonoid which help prevent oxidative damage and can improve hsCRP levels in a month or two according to the research.
The two biomarkers outside of optimal range were Transferrin Saturation (TS) and serum iron. High TS levels indicate that my iron levels are too high. Because I am vegetarian, I supplement. High dosage dietary iron supplements combined with high intake of foods fortified with iron may be causing these elevated levels. Serum iron was the second biomarker outside of optimal range. My ferritin and hemoglobin levels, however, were optimized. Optimized ferritin and hemoglobin levels indicate that I am consuming enough iron to meet the body's needs. So I can titrate down and decrease my dosages.
The data is granular and gives me the feedback I need to make minor adjustments to improve my performance. My Vitamin B12 levels, for example, are slightly elevated most likely due to supplementation. Vegetarians tend to have low B12 levels, so I take a B-complex, a multivitamin, and a B12 supplement. Bloodwork suggests it's overkill. My creatine kinase levels are also slightly elevated which may indicate over-training. Elevated levels of creatine kinase are present when muscle cells rupture during intense exercise. The more creatine kinase in the bloodstream, the more muscle damage there is. When creatine kinase is above optimal, an athlete increases his risk of inflammation, muscle damage, cramping, fatigue, delayed recovery and injury. Protein is essential for muscle repair. CoQ10 supplementation has also been shown to decrease high creatine kinase. Rest and recovery are also important and should be prioritized. Nutrition, too, plays a key role. InsightTimer provides recommendations based on my unique biochemistry and preferences. This is exactly the kind of data that I need to make more informed decisions about nutrition.
InsideTracker is expensive. I can afford 2, maybe 3 tests annually. But I must wait several months to see if the changes I've made have had an effect. Zoe is a similar product that is highly recommended, but which I have not used.
4. Continuous blood glucose monitors (CGM)
There are many blood glucose monitors on the market: Veri, Levels, Nutrisense, Ultrahuman, Signos, and JanuaryAI to name a few. These monitors provide feedback before and after every meal, every workout and every night's sleep which helps us understand how the body is reacting to food, sleep, stress, and physical activity. Most dieting advice is general and generic. With a CGM and app, I can see which foods are best to meet my energy demands. We each have a unique biochemistry. Different people have different glycemic responses to the same food partly due to the unique milieu of our gut microbiome. CGMs provide personalized data which allows us to make better decisions.
CGMs measure blood glucose, sometimes called blood sugar. Blood glucose is a primary biomarker for diabetes. Elevated glucose levels, however, are also associated with other diseases from heart disease and cancer to metabolic syndrome and Alzheimers.
Glucose is a form of sugar. Carbohydrates also provide the body with glucose. Blood glucose refers to sugar molecules (C6 H12 06) circulating in your veins and arteries. Blood glucose is necessary for survival. Your red blood cells, for example, can’t use any other fuel and the brain consumes about 120 grams per day. When glucose is scarce (on a fast, for instance), blood sugar levels don’t drop to zero. Instead, to keep glucose levels up, your body activates two glucose backup mechanisms:
Glycogenolysis: The release of stored glucose from muscle and liver cells. (You store about 500 grams of glucose as glycogen).
Gluconeogenesis: When glycogen becomes depleted, your liver makes glucose from protein and lactate.
After consuming a meal, blood sugar rises, and the hormone, insulin, comes along to move that blood sugar out of your blood and safely into cells. As a general rule: the smaller and shorter the spike in blood sugar, the better. CGMs help us measure these levels. Ideally, we want to keep blood sugar spikes to under 30 mg/dl over baseline at one-hour post-meal. Baselines can be calculated after an overnight fast of around 12 hours. (If your baseline is 85 mg/dl (4.7 mmol/L), you don’t want to exceed 115 mg/dl). And by three hours after eating, you should be back near your baseline. This indicates that insulin is doing its job.
5. Metabolic Trackers
In a 2019 study, researchers found that only 12% of Americans were metabolically healthy. Using the most recent guidelines, metabolic health was defined as having optimal levels of waist circumference (WC <102/88 cm for men/women), glucose (fasting glucose <100 mg/dL and hemoglobin A1c <5.7%), blood pressure (systolic <120 and diastolic <80 mmHg), triglycerides (<150 mg/dL), and high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (≥40/50 mg/dL for men/women), and not taking any related medication.
To be metabolically healthy means that the body can digest and absorb nutrients from the food that we eat without unhealthy spikes in blood sugar, blood fat, inflammation, and insulin. Key to metabolic health is metabolic flexibility, the body's ability to draw energy from fats or carbohydrates depending on their availability. High-functioning mitochondrial density enables burning more fat for energy and high insulin sensitivity helps partition carbohydrates into muscle rather than storing as fat.
To be metabolically healthy means that the body is able to extract energy from food without increasing the risk of developing conditions such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.
Many variables make up individual metabolic health. Some are fixed, some are within our control. You cannot change your age, sex, or your genes. But you can change your diet, gut microbiome, weight, sleep, and exercise, and you can address your stress and mental health.
Billions of metabolic reactions unfold every second within each cell. You are made up of 30 trillion cells. That's 100 billion trillion metabolic reactions occurring every second. The sum aggregate of these processes influence how we act and think and feel. We can improve our metabolic health by dialing in diet, exercise, and sleep, and dialing down chronic stress.
Lumen uses a CO2 sensor and flow meter to determine the CO2 concentration in a single breath. This indicates the type of fuel your body is using to produce energy. Biosense is a similar product that measures breath acetone, which is produced as a byproduct of ketogenesis. The concentration of acetone in the breath indicates your level of nutritional ketosis.
Measurements can be taken throughout the day. These readings give me insights and help me make better choices to improve my diet. I get immediate feedback on my previous decisions: food choices, portions, how fast I eat, my exercise regimen, training intensity, recovery time, and the quality and quantity of sleep.
6. Smart Watch
I owned a Fitbit and Garmin smart watch specifically to help me improve my run times and VO2 Max.
7. Wim Hof Method (WHM)
The WHM app is based on a protocol designed by Wim "the Iceman" Hof. Wim Hof is a 61 year old Dutch extreme athlete noted for his ability to withstand extreme cold and for other superhuman feats. Not only has he shared his techniques with the world, he subjected himself to the rigors of scientific testing. The results are replicable. Those who train in this technique, as I have, enjoy many of the benefits.
8. Healthy Minds Program (HMP)
The Healthy Minds Program was developed by professor Richard Davidson, a giant in the fields of neuroscience and mindfulness. The program is structured and guided. Until I completed the program (which took several months), my morning meditation routine began with 15 minutes of WHM, 10-30 minutes of HMP, and the balance to attentional training, visualization, or some other technique. The program is free (as of the writing) and, like Insight Timer and the WHM apps) available on the App Store or Google Play.
9. Paced Breathing
Paced Breathing is a free breathing app that allows users to control all 4 cycles of the breath and set the inhalation, hold, exhalation, and pause before the next breath. I use this app for breath work exercises to build pulmonary control, techniques like boxed breathing and other pranayama exercises.
In Breath, James Nestor describes the perfect breath as a 5.5 second inhalation and a 5.5 exhalation. That's 5.5 breaths per minute for a volume of 5.5 liters of air. Circulation increases; the strain on the heart decreases. My heart rate variability scores improve when I breathe at this rate.
The Inner Balance Trainer is a biofeedback tool. The heart rate variability (hrv) sensor communicates with an app (available on the App Store or Google Play). HRV is a biomarker that measures both heart health and emotional balance. It offers a window into the "quality of communication between the heart and brain, which impacts how we feel and perform." The sensor attaches to a tablet or phone via Bluetooth or Lightning and provides real time feedback. "The Inner Balance technology trains us to self-generate a highly efficient physiological state called HRV coherence, which helps us increase emotional composure and clearer reasoning."
For the last 3 years, I ran an informal study with children and found a statistically significant correlation between hrv and affect (behavior, impulsivity, and anxiety). The lower the hrv score, the more anxious, distractible, or impulsive the child. In a follow-up study, I found that HRV could be improved with training. I came across a 2020 meta-analysis that corroborated these findings. Researchers found that heart rate variability biofeedback training could improve symptoms associated with anxiety, depression, anger and performance.
I have been using this product for about 8 years. I preferred the lightning sensor that connects directly into the iPad to the newer Bluetooth. Wearing both at the same time and running one from a phone and one from a tablet, I found results were dissimilar. The data from the Bluetooth sensor, moreover, did not match what I felt experientially.
Muse is a multichannel EEG headband that provides real-time feedback on brain activity. It works best with focused-attention styled meditations. Like the Inner Balance hrv sensor, the Muse headband is paired to a device which provides and collects data via the app. The soundscapes are my favorite feature. When the mind is calm and settled, the user hears calm, peaceful weather. When the mind is busy, the ambient sounds get louder.
Connectivity issues and frequent signal drops.
12. Mind Monitor
I recently discovered Mind Monitor. Mind Monitor captures and interprets EEG data from the Muse headband. Many researchers and scientists on a budget have used the Muse headband. In a 2017 paper, Dr. Krigolson, a professor at the Centre for Biomedical Research, University of Victoria, BC, Canada, compared the headband with Actichamp, a pro grade EEG system. He found that the Muse headband was a valid tool and that the results were credible. These studies were replicated and were followed up with more robust studies which included more than 1,000 participants.
The Muse headband comes with its own proprietary software. For those who are interested in parsing out the EEG data, however, there is Mind Monitor. I use this tool to measure brainwave activity. Different meditation techniques influence different cognitive control states. With this tool, I can measure what I cannot see. There are techniques that accentuate alpha states. Others that promote more delta (slower, more restful states). In other techniques, gamma or theta waves may be pronounced or dominant. This tool allows me to practice more intelligently, in a more objective and empirical way.
13. Oculus: Virtual Reality (VR) Goggles
VR is an immersive and interactive experience. The American Psychological Association finds VR "particularly well suited to exposure therapy." We can work with triggers in a controlled environment. To introduce children to meditation, I won a grant and purchased VR goggles. There is a meditation app that immerses users in over 100 different environments. I feel like I'm on retreat. There is a 3D human anatomy app that I enjoy. While it is intended for students, I use it as a map before a body scan meditation. There are other science based apps that allow me to explore the cosmos, the atom, or the cell. This appreciation of creation (from the smallest particles to the largest galaxy clusters) enhances my meditation experiences. The Face Your Fears app provides unsettling simulations that I use to train the mind to remain calm.
14. Mindfulness Bell
Mindfulness Bell is an interval timer. I set it to chime every hour. I use these reminders to cultivate habits of mind such as radical responsibility, presence, gratitude, or compassion. I am responsible for my thoughts. If the mind secretes a hurtful thought, I don't have to blend with it or validate it or assume it to be true. I can cut, ignore, question, challenge, externalize, observe or simply allow it to dissolve back into the formless void from which it emerged. I choose my response.
As of this writing, I am seeking to cultivate goodwill, and to correct the brain's negativity bias and interrupt the fundamental attribution error process. "Don't judge; bless" is a shorthand for this exercise.
Negativity bias refers to the mind's tendency to focus on unpleasant thoughts, emotions, interactions or traumatic events. This attentional focus affects our impressions, memory, decisions, and biochemistry. The negativity bias confers advantages (caution, prudence, and planning may stem from it), but when negativity becomes the dominant way of seeing, it can contribute to mental distress and physical dis-ease.
Fundamental attribution error is the brain's tendency to ascribe the actions or behaviors of others to character or personality, but our same actions or behaviors to situations beyond our control. For example, suppose my child is sick and I rush to the hospital. I speed and cut someone off. I excuse this action or behavior as circumstantial. If someone else cuts me off, however, I may judge them as reckless or selfish. They may be late to a meeting, trying to catch a flight, rushing to the hospital, or simply unaware that my vehicle was approaching.
The bell chimes. I pause. I interrupt the narrative. If judging, I bless. I assume the best. For me, this is an intentional exercise that takes practice. The Mindfulness Bell helps reinforce it.
15. Note pad
There are many productivity hacks. I use Note pad to list the 1 must and 3 important tasks I want to accomplish.
I use Slides to digitize my action board. My action board includes specific, actionable goals that are both tangible (e.g. remodeling a bathroom) and intangible (e.g. cultivating goodwill). I've included meditation goals that are also measurable and specific (e.g. an hourlong attentional hold). For more on the stages of attention, click here.
17. Pulse oximeter
Pulse oximeters measure blood oxygen levels. When we breathe, oxygen enters the lungs. A gas exchange takes place and the oxygen molecule binds to hemoglobin. The blood cells deliver oxygen to the cells in the body. The pulse oximeter slides over the finger and uses infrared light refraction to measure how well oxygen is binding to the red blood cells. This is measured as peripheral capillary oxygen saturation, or SpO2. I wear this device when I practice breath work exercises such as the Wim Hof Method, breath holds, when taking a C02 tolerance test, or when taking a blood oxygen level test (BOLT). The BOLT score is an assessment used by Patrick McKeown to determine relative breathing volume during rest and breathlessness during physical exercise.
18. Upright Posture Tracker
In the Rinzai School of Japanese Zen Buddhism, a monk will strike a slouching meditator with a flat wooden stick called a keisaku, translated as a warning stick or awakening stick. The Upright posture sensor is much more gentle and buzzes whenever I slouch.
First published 10/08/2021
Edited and republished 12/10/2023