Episode 310: The Neuroscience of Meditation, Sleep, and the Brain

Episode Summary

Pursuing her desire to help people have a better life, Ariel got in touch with a brain-computer interface system, EEG, capable of reading brain waves and providing real-time feedback on brain activity. Fast forward many years, Ariel would use EEG to develop a technology capable of helping people untangle their busy minds with the power of mindfulness.

Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to our Becoming Your Best podcast listeners, wherever you may be in the world today. This is your host, Steve Shallenberger. And we have a special guest with us today. She is probably one of the most interesting people you’ll meet. She is a neuroscientist, a mom, former psychotherapist, former fashion designer, and is the co-founder and visionary of an amazing and highly successful tech startup, Muse. Muse tracks your brain during meditation to give you real-time feedback, guiding you into the “zone,” and solving the problem most of us have when starting a meditation practice. So, Muse lets you know when you are doing it right. And now Muse is helping its users improve their sleep. So, I’m excited to hear about this. And welcome, Ariel Garten. We’re so excited to have you as a guest on the show today.  

Ariel Garten: Thank you, Steven. It’s my joy and pleasure to be here today. 

Steve Shallenberger: And not only is she’s a mom, she’s an expecting-mom. 

Ariel Garten: Mom and mom-to-be simultaneously. 

Steve Shallenberger: Amen. This will be the second. Do you know if it’s a boy or girl?  

Ariel Garten: It’s a little girl.  

Steve Shallenberger: And what was the first one? 

Ariel Garten: It was a boy. Match that. 

Steve Shallenberger: Well, now that’s organized right there. Well, before we get started today, I’d like to tell you a little bit more about Ariel. With no formal business background, Ariel personally raised $18 million to found Muse from Silicon Valley investors as well as Ashton Kutcher. Ariel Muse have been featured in over 1,000 articles, including CNN, Forbes, Fortune, Popular Science, and really many more. And it’s now used by hundreds of thousands of people to start or deepen their meditation practice. Also, including the Mayo Clinic. The second-generation Muse S is an advanced EEG technology, and Ariel can tell us what the advanced EEG technology is, because it tracks how well you focus, sleep, and recharge. And the newly-launched digital sleeping pill presents the latest and nonpharmaceutical sleep support, providing immediate, and intelligence assistance with falling asleep and nighttime interruptions. So, this is going to be a lot of fun. Ariel’s mission in life is to help people understand how their brain and mind work, both the nuts and bolts and neurons, and how they play out in the messy and beautiful human experience of living. She inspires people to understand that they can accomplish anything they want by understanding what actually goes on in their own mind. So, before we dive into this, Ariel and I had a lovely time visiting before the show began. And I described a little bit more about Becoming Your Best and how one of the 12 principles of highly successful leaders is to live in peace and balance. And so this is a subject that’s interesting to every single one of us because our health, our capacity is what gives us the ability to do everything else. So, having said all that, Ariel, tell us about your background and including any points in your life that had a significant impact on you. What’s your story? Tell us how you got here. 

Ariel Garten: So, my background, I grew up in Toronto. My mom is an artist. So, I’d always see her previous incredible visions, these beautiful works on canvas. And from a blank canvas make something amazing. And my dad was an entrepreneur, self-made in real estate, flipping one house at a time. So, I really grew up with this notion that you could really create whatever you wanted, and you didn’t have to have a real job. You could figure it out yourself. And I really aligned my own mission, not to flipping houses, but to understanding how we could make people’s lives better. That’s what I desperately wanted to give. So, I went to school for science, which then became going to school for neuroscience because I recognized that if you could figure out how to help people unlock their brain, then really, you could make people’s lives better. I trained as a psychotherapist along the way and then started working in the lab of Mann called Dr. Steve Mann, who’s a professor at the University of Toronto. He had an early brain-computer interface system that he was using, actually, to create musical experiences. And I stood back and said, “This is unbelievable, and I think I can build a business around it.” So, we got together with my two co-founders, Chris and Trevor – this was in the early 2000s – and we set about trying to build a business around this technology. At first, we thought we’re going to let people control stuff with their brain, and then realize that it wasn’t very practical. But along the way, recognized that as we were teaching people to focus or relax, to try to make a light bulb go brighter, or make a sound go dimmer; we were actually giving people real-time feedback on their brain activity using this system. And from there, we recognized “Okay, well, what is the way that we can have the most value in the world with this technology, with this EEG technology that can read your brainwaves and can allow you to interact in some way.” And we recognized it was not by letting people control stuff with their brain but it was actually by letting people understand what was going on in their own minds and learn to control their own mental spaces.  

Ariel Garten: And as we’re teaching people to focus and relax to control the light, we’re actually teaching them to focus and relax and showing them when they were doing it. And that was far more valuable. And so from there, Muse was born. Along the way, there were a ton of twists and turns. I had my own little real estate business. I was a clothing designer until my dad said, “Look, this is never going to be successful.” And I was like, “I’m 22 years old. I’m in the newspaper, and I own a clothing store. It’s like the coolest thing I could imagine.” He’s like, “Trust me. There’s more there for you.” I don’t know how or why I trusted him. But my father was right. And many ventures later, finally doing something that really, I feel, fulfills my purpose. 

Steve Shallenberger: That is a great story. How long ago did you start this effort? 

Ariel Garten: I’m 42. Muse started in 2002. So, about 20 years ago, I started working with the brain-computer interface tech, simultaneously had other careers. It was on the side for a while. And in 2009, corporated the company. By 2012, I raised significant funds. And we’ve had product in the market for the last seven years. 

Steve Shallenberger: Well, our listeners, of course, have heard about meditation. Some of them are actively involved in using meditation, however, you have many that aren’t or that feel like they can do better. So, tell us about meditation. What is it? How do you do it? Why it works? And what really happens in the brain when we meditate?  

Ariel Garten: Sure, those are a lot of amazing topics. So, meditation is actually practice or training that leads to healthy and positive mindsets. It’s not some sort of weird or woo-woo thing. We’re all beginning to recognize that it has significant value. Indeed, there are over 8,000 published research studies demonstrating meditation’s ability to improve our attention, decrease our stress, improve our relationships, improve our brain function, and even improve our physiological health. So, the bottom line: science says meditation is good for you. Now, just because something’s good for you doesn’t mean that it’s easy to do. On the one hand, meditation is very simple. On the other hand, it can be hard to instill a practice. So, the most basic form of meditation that most people will learn first is called focused attention meditation. In focused attention meditation, what you’re doing is you’re putting your attention on your breath. And then, eventually, your attention will wander away from your breath and up into your thoughts. And it’s your job to then notice that you are not thinking, not paying attention to your breath, so let go of that breath and return your attention to your breath. So, it’s a very, very simple loop: attention on your breath, mind eventually wanders, you notice that you’ve wandered, and return.  

Ariel Garten: Now, from this very, very simple activity, some absolutely profound transformation can happen. So, for one, most of us just kind of go through our lives on autopilot. We go through our lives with thoughts in our brain or in our mind, generated by our brain. And because we have thoughts in our mind, in our head, we just sort of presume we’re supposed to be thinking them. And so we’re just thinking the thoughts that come and go, and that’s what we do. Well, when you do the simple practice of putting your attention somewhere intentionally, when your mind wanders onto a thought, noticing that that happened, and then choosing to take your attention away from that thought to not think it and to bring your attention elsewhere onto something neutral; in that very moment, you have changed your relationship to your thinking. And rather than simply being at the mercy of all of the thoughts in our head whirling around in there, you now have choice over the contents of your own mind. You can choose the thoughts that you want to be thinking and the thoughts that you want to let go of. And since then, many, many of our thoughts are repetitive, stressful, and not particularly helpful. Once we begin to do that, we’re actually able to significantly reduce the amount of stress in our life because it is the job of this little organ in our brain called the amygdala to inform us of when something is dangerous, which is awesome when there’s a real danger in front of you like a car that could hit you or a fire.  

Ariel Garten: But typically, your amygdala fires on things like the email that came in or that contract that “Oh, no, I hope I get it but I think I’m not going to.” And so your brain just keeps presenting negative information over and over again – your amygdala – because it feels like you need to know this incredibly important thing. But often, the things that it’s representing are not important. It’s staining in your pants before you go into an interview; you just can’t stop thinking about it. The fact that you’re stuck in traffic and you can’t do anything about it, and you just keep thinking about how stuck in traffic you are. And so when we engage a meditation practice and we are choosing to bring our attention away from a thought and onto something neutral, what we’re actually doing is we’re bringing in our prefrontal cortex. And the prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain that’s associated with thinking, with planning, organization, higher-order processing, decision-making, and attention. And what we’re actually learning to do is to bring in this prefrontal cortex, make a choice, make a decision, and then down-regulate the activity of our amygdala, kind of like the prefrontal cortex is the parents who can tell the amygdala, “Shh! Calm down. It’s okay. It’s all good.” And that practice actually allows us to have greater awareness of our thoughts – it’s called metacognition, it’s another function of your prefrontal cortex – allows us to quiet the useless thoughts in our mind, allows us to focus on the things that matter, and what you do is you breathe deeply, which calms your body as well. So, in a very small nutshell, that is part of what meditation is, why it’s so powerful, and what it does in the brain. 

Steve Shallenberger: Ariel, how long does it take to do a focused attention meditation that you just talked about: the breathing, the mind wanders, and then breathe again? 

Ariel Garten: So, you can do it in as little as a minute. Just pay attention to your breath, eventually, your mind will wander away, you notice, and you return. But if you do it for, say, 10 to 20 minutes, you’re going to see significantly more benefit. You can do one situp and you will have done something, or you can do 20 situps and you’re gonna get pretty strong pretty fast. So, as you engage this practice regularly. And really, five minutes is fine. With Muse, we have a lot of studies that demonstrate that just 10 minutes a day has significant change over a period of six weeks. Just engage the practice a little bit each day, build on it, and you begin to build the skill of – throughout the day – noticing your thoughts, being mindful and making a choice about where your attention is, knowing that you can disengage from the kind of thinking that’s not helpful to you, and be able to refocus on the things that are. 

Steve Shallenberger: That’s really valuable. Do you have a favorite type of meditation that you like to do? 

Ariel Garten: So, I am a connoisseur of all sorts of meditations. There are so many varieties. Focused attention is always a great base to come back to, and a cornerstone of my training is that it really teaches you to be aware of the process of your thinking, which is so valuable. I also do breath meditations – so, different forms of breathing exercises that are intended to calm my nervous system, trigger my vagus nerve to move me into a parasympathetic tone. With Muse, we have breath meditations, we have heart meditations; you can actually listen to the beating of your heart like the beating of the drum and learn to actually be sensitive to internal state, it’s called interoception. We have hundreds of guided meditations in different forms. So, sometimes you might simply be guided through an experience of moving your mind through your body, or feeling the sensation of calm and stillness, or feeling the sensation of love in your heart. All of these have different teachings and different lessons and end up being great for the mind and body in a variety of different ways. 

Steve Shallenberger: Great, thanks for the overview, that was terrific. Well, let’s just shift the field of our discussion for a moment to the brain, and especially sleep. So, how does the brain function during sleep? And how can we really assure a higher quality rest? 

Ariel Garten: That is a great question. So, when we talk about brain health, there are some basic pillars of great brain health. One is good exercise, good eating, good sleeping, and meditation. And of course, loving connection to your family and friends. You do these five things and your brain is going to be about as healthy as it can get. It’s very, very simple. It’s tremendously simple. As a neuroscientist, I’m shocked that these are the recommendations that we have still, but they usually work. So, sleep is an important cornerstone, not only of brain health but of our ability to be cognitively functional and emotionally self-regulated throughout the day. Now, in terms of how our brain works as we’re going to sleep, this is really interesting. When you know how your brain works falling asleep, it then helps you create a set of habits to make your sleep better. So, as you’re falling asleep, your brain has two different systems that guide its sleepiness; one, you might have heard of, is melatonin in your circadian rhythms. So, as you fall asleep, and actually as it gets dark out, your brain starts producing a hormone called melatonin. The darker it gets, the more melatonin it creates. Throughout the night, your melatonin levels are high. In the morning, they begin to drop. And then as you wake up and you get light in your eyes, your melatonin levels completely dropdown.  

Ariel Garten: So, in order to be signaled for sleep, you want your melatonin levels to be as high as they can. And in order to maintain deep sleep, you want to maintain high melatonin levels. So, when you know that and you know that melatonin is triggered by light, that means that you want to be turning down your lights about 30 minutes before bedtime, start making it dim, start building those melatonin levels in your brain. Make sure it’s dark when you sleep, curtains to block out that streetlight in your eyes. And then when you wake up in the morning, you want to be getting bright light in your eyes right upon waking up so that it shuts off the melatonin and shuts off the residual grogginess that can be leftover when you still have melatonin floating in your brain. And once you’re able to train that circadian rhythm – do it at a predictable time each night same time, on-off, on-off, night-morning, night-morning – then it becomes very easy for you to sleep more easily the next night because your system is credited. So, melatonin and circadian rhythms is one system.  

Ariel Garten: The other system that governs our falling asleep is called your sleep pressure. Now, throughout the day, there is a molecule in your brain called adenosine. And adenosine binds to a little receptor in your brain and the more adenosine binds to that receptor, the more sleepy you become, the more your sleep pressure increases. Until so much adenosine is bound, you are so sleepy, you cannot just help but [18:02 inaudible] right out. So, you want to make sure that you’re doing things that do not relieve your sleep pressure throughout the day; you want to keep building up the pressure. Now, there’s one thing that steals your sleep pressure. And that is caffeine. Because cool fact: caffeine has a very similar chemical shape as adenosine. And coffee actually enters your brain, crosses the blood-brain barrier, and fills in those little adenosine receptors instead of the adenosine, meaning that it’s blocking your ability to create sleep pressure, which is why coffee makes us so awesomely alert, and why it feels our sleep that night because you don’t have sufficient sleep pressure. So, if you want to sleep rock-solid, stop your caffeine around noon. Coffee has a halflife of six to eight hours. So that means that you want to be, 12 hours before you’re going to bed, 10 hours before you’re going to bed, shutting off that caffeine tap. So, drop the evening coffee. You might find you fall asleep faster and stay asleep better because you have maximal sleep pressure. 

Steve Shallenberger: Well, that’s fun advice there. I love it. Now, how about melatonin? Let’s just talk about that. Do some people have lower levels and they need to supplement it? What is your research showing on that? 

Ariel Garten: So, supplementation with melatonin is an effective way to help you sleep but not great in the long term because it can really disrupt your native melatonin levels. So, if you’re using melatonin for a few nights, that’s fine. But you don’t want to be using it regularly long term; you want to be setting your brain’s own levels. And the way to do that is really by increasing the amount of darkness at night and brightness in the morning. That’s the very best way to do it. Exercise also helps. Melatonin can also be built from serotonin. That’s part of the reason why Turkey makes you sleepy because Turkey has a precursor and it’s called tryptophan, that’s the amino acid, which then converts to serotonin and can convert melatonin, so just makes you nice and cozy. 

Steve Shallenberger: That’s great. So, thanks for these tips. I’m sure I’m gonna try them tonight, and I’ll tell you why in just a moment. But tell us about the Muse digital sleeping pill, how does that work? And what is it? 

Ariel Garten: So, unlike a pill that you take that can have side effects, this has no side effects. What we’ve built is an experience that actually guides your brain into sleep using bio neurofeedback. So, the Muse is a beautiful device that actually gives you real-time feedback on your brain during meditation to actually make the process of meditation easier. It lets you know when you’re focused and when your mind is wandering in that focused attention practice, making it easy to know what to do and giving you actionable insights to help guide and maintain your practice. We also, with the same device, have an incredible set of tools to help you fall asleep because the device is a true clinical-grade EEG. And so it can track your sleep as effectively as a sleep lab. And so we have these beautiful interventions that help guide you into sleep by actually checking on your level of wakefulness – because there’s an EEG on your head like a sleep lab – and then morphing and guiding your audio experience to walk your brain into sleep. So, as you’re falling asleep, the Muse is detecting that, it’s turning down the audio, it’s slowing it down, it’s cueing your brain that it’s time to sleep. And if you wake up in the middle of the night, it will be alerted because it can detect your level of wakefulness, and then it’ll bring in the same beautiful guided audio that helps you fall asleep the first time and guide your brain back to sleep. And it’s just this thin, super comfy little band. You remember I was a clothing designer, so being comfortable and looking good is really important. And it’s now used by over half a million people around the world to help them meditate and sleep. 

Steve Shallenberger: Wow! You’re gonna love this, Ariel. Mine arrived last week. And it’s been charging. And I’m not really sure how to use it yet. Is there an app that goes with it? 

Ariel Garten: Yes, it’s very straightforward to use. There’s an app in the iPhone or iTunes Store. You just turn on your Muse, download the app, and it all starts to work. There are little videos that guide you through exactly what to do. And literally, it’s used with geriatric patients to deal with the stress and anxiety of age-related cognitive decline. It’s used all over the board with people of all sorts of abilities. So, you’ll be very easily able to figure it out. 

Steve Shallenberger: I can’t wait to use it tonight. It was fun, I was in Cabo San Lucas at a business meeting a couple of weeks ago, almost three weeks ago. And a friend told me about this and said he loved it. So, you got some real disciples out there. 

Ariel Garten: Thank you. Yeah, we’re super lucky to have a lot of really enthusiastic Muse fans. We have lots of sports professionals who use it. Olympic athletes, meditation teachers, CEOs across the board. It’s such an honor, starting with everybody. 

Steve Shallenberger: Well, that’s good. That’s wonderful. Thinking of “live in peace and balance.” This principle of Becoming Your Best that we’ve observed that, really, this is one of the things that sets people apart from everybody else, one of the 12 things. So, let’s just talk about the brain a little bit more in the neuroscience of things such as anxiety, fear, and bias. How can you overcome that? 

Ariel Garten: So, this concept of living in peace and balance is incredibly important. And earlier on, I was talking about the part of your brain called the amygdala, whose job is to always be scanning for danger. And really what it does is it over optimizes for its function, it over scans, it over informs you of things that are dangerous. And as a result, with our mind flooded with thoughts of danger that are not particularly helpful to us or relevant in the moment, we end up with this physiological arousal that results from it. So, your amygdala signals through your HPA, Hypothalamic Pituitary Axis, signals the production of cortisol, that cortisol floods throughout your body and increases your blood pressure, decreases the size of your blood vessels, increases your heart rate, makes you sweaty, increases your blood glucose, etc. So, it has this very visceral impact in your physiology. And then once you notice that your physiology is ramped, of course, you’re going to think that there’s something wrong; “Oh, no, I’m feeling anxious, there must be some reason.” And so that generates more thoughts about that thing.  

Ariel Garten: So, the important way to overcome it, first of all, is to recognize that your body is just flowing through this process that it doesn’t need to. It’s kind of like a broken alarm. The alarm continues to sound for something that really is quite benign. And so when you engage in active practice to quite your nervous system, to quiet your amygdala, to quiet your thoughts, that allows you to overcome both the psychological and physiological stimulation of these fear signals. The first important step is the recognition that actually I don’t need to be this way, even though it feels intense, even though it feels like this thing must be so true because it feels so terrible, that may not actually be the truth of the scenario.  

Ariel Garten: So, during COVID, I’m sure many of us felt scared in our own homes. But inside your own home, you’re actually completely totally safe. And so taking the opportunity to look objectively at the situation, to recognize the neuro-physiological way that you’re compelled by your body and mind to react. And then to bring in that prefrontal cortex, that top-down process, and that recognition that “Actually, no, I don’t need to do this now.” Take deep breaths, which is going to trigger your vagus nerve to move you into parasympathetic, rest and digest mode, quiet your mind by moving it away or putting on music, doing a meditation practice, doing something that’s going to take you out of that mental space. And then allow the relaxed mode of quieting your mind, quieting your body, quieting your mind, quieting your body to bring you back down. 

Steve Shallenberger: This can be caused by things like trauma, injury, or divorce, or a broken relationship, or something that’s really been tough. So you feel this way. And so if any of our listeners or if I’m feeling this way, I can take these kinds of steps to start quieting things down. 

Ariel Garten: Yes. And the thing about trauma is that your brain has learned from a past situation that it needs to protect you from something that’s actually not a threat in that moment. So, in trauma, we might be sitting in a moment in which we’re perfectly safe, but we are reminded or triggered of a previous threatening scenario, and your brain and body reenact part of that scenario in an effort to keep you safe from something that is no longer here with you, that is no longer an imminent threat. And it’s very easy to get sucked into the trauma, in your body’s response, and believe that because you’re responding, there must be a problem. But actually, there’s not. And that’s something you need to rise above, see what’s going on in your mind and body, and make a difference. 

Steve Shallenberger: That’s really great advice. Well, I’m always amazed, Ariel, how fast things go, and we’re at the end of our interview already.  

Ariel Garten: Oh, it’s been so much fun.  

Steve Shallenberger: Oh, it has been fun. So, any final tips you’d like to leave with our listeners today? 

Ariel Garten: Yes, if I have one big piece of advice, it’s don’t believe everything your brain tells you. You have the opportunity to rise above and actually make an informed and intelligent choice, and not just follow the random thoughts that come from their mind or the random sensations that your body may be bringing you along with. Some of them are very wise. And some of them are very misaligned. 

Steve Shallenberger: Well, that’s great advice. And how can people find out more about what you’re doing? 

Ariel Garten: So, you can find out more about Muse at Like choosing the thoughts in your mind. And you can find out more about me at my Instagram, ariels_musings, or follow choosemuse on any of the social platforms @choosemuse. 

Steve Shallenberger: It has been a delight to have you with us today, Ariel. And thanks for being part of the show. 

Ariel Garten: It’s been my joined pleasure. Thank you so much. 

Steve Shallenberger: What a great and productive visit this has been. It’s been fun. And we wish you all the best as you’re making a difference in the world and helping people be more at peace and be more effective, more successful, and live in greater peace and balance. So, nice going. 

Ariel Garten: I’m trying. I’m glad it is impart working. All we can do is try our best. 

Steve Shallenberger: Well, that’s the spirit of it. And to all of our listeners, never forget, you too, can and are making a difference every single day of your life. This is Steve Shallenberger with Becoming Your Best Global Leadership wishing you a great day. 

Steve Shallenberger

Founder, Becoming Your Best
CEO, executive, corporate trainer, and community leader.

Ariel Garten

Founder & Chief Evangelism Officer at IteraXon Inc,

Neuroscientist, mother, psychotherapist, fashion designer and creator of MUSE.

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