Does checking Twitter during the workday really leave you scatterbrained? Could taking up meditation help you tune out the noise and focus better? Melon, a stylish EEG headband and elegant companion app, is one of the first products to try to give empirical answers to those questions. It’s an early foray into a new frontier for the quantified self: the brain.
You can think of Melon as a Fitbit for your noggin’—just instead of counting steps, it quantifies concentration. The hardware component is a sci-fi chic headband that registers brain activity with the help of an EEG sensor and a handful of filtering algorithms. That data gets sent to a companion app that visualizes the user’s focus as a fluid, flowing line. There, whether you’re slogging through a project at work, doing yoga, or finishing a crossword puzzle, you can get a sense of just how focused you really are.
The product, now the center of a Kickstarter campaign, was created by Arye Barnehama and Laura Michelle Berman, former cognitive science students at Pomona. The idea was to create something that "made the invisible activity of the mind visible and meaningful in everyday life," Barnehama says. They worked for a while under the name Axio, testing out various technologies and shoring up the scientific foundations for the product. The final headband, created in partnership with NeuroSky, a leader in consumer EEG tech, "effectively measures neural activity in virtually any condition with 96% accuracy when compared to similarly configured research grade EEGs," according to the company.
With Melon, the founders had the challenge of turning the geeky (and potentially creepy) world of brain sensors and cognitive science into a "lifestyle oriented brand." A key part of that is the headband itself, which looks like something you’d be more likely to find in a sporting goods store than a research lab. And that was very much the point.
"The headband was definitely designed to make it possible for people to wear during lots of different activities, everything from exercise and athletics to studying to sitting in bed and reading," Barnehama explains. Compared to the typical image you might conjure up of someone getting their brain scanned—a scalp outfitted with sensors and covered in a wig of wiring—Melon is decidedly nonthreatening.
The app shows a similarly thoughtful design. The main screen visualizes focus in the moment, giving users an at-a-glance view of their activity. After a session is complete, you can dive into more in-depth data. The app also optionally dispenses tips at moments when concentration is waning; it will suggest things like taking deep breaths or going for a walk—and then register how those suggestions subsequently affect mental balance. It’s a feature that starts to address one of the major shortcomings of many quantified-self products, namely, that quantification isn’t especially useful if you don’t get any guidance for turning it into actual improvement.
And that, it seems, is where Melon could be most useful. The Fitbits and FuelBands of the world operate in the tangible, familiar world of physical activity. We know that taking the stairs is a little bit healthier than riding the elevator, and those devices let us quantify and catalog all those little decisions to err on the side of exercise throughout the day.
The world Melon’s trying to tap into is far murkier. Compared to our bodies, the brain is like a black box. Most of us, I’m sure, feel like the Internet has sapped at our powers of concentration, but that’s about all we know. Assuming it works as advertised, Melon could show just how distracting multitasking really is when you’re trying to meet a deadline. It could give you some reassurance that the time you’re setting aside to read or meditate really is having a calming effect. Just like seeing a step count has proven effective at keeping us walking, maybe seeing our focus visualized and quantified will encourage us to work out not just our bodies, but our minds, too.