If you have been into trading (or any performance endeavor) for awhile, I'm sure that you have heard about how meditation helps elite performers stay at the top of their game.
But you may be wondering: Does meditation really work and can you measure the effectiveness of a particular type of meditation practice or mindfulness aid (device, audio recording, smart drug, etc.)?
Actually, I have no doubt that it works. But I was was wondering if it could be easily measured and more importantly…optimized.
There are a lot of different meditation techniques out there, how do I know that works best for me?
This is the primary question that I wanted to answer.
I also had related questions like:
- Is TM the best meditation technique for me?
- Do you really have to sit up straight, with your back straight and legs at 90 degrees to get a good meditation session?
- Can I lie down and still have an effective meditation session?
- Can I measure my mental state in real-time, so I know that I am in a good state for making important decisions (like taking trades)?
- And much, much more…
Yes, I acknowledge that it may not be possible to answer any of these questions. But let's give it a shot anyway.
Here's how I'm going to attempt to do it…
In this post, I'll show you research that shows you that meditation does work. Then I'll get into the equipment that I'm currently using and how I'm going to quantitatively show the effectiveness of different meditation practices, to find out what works best for me.
Finally, I'll show you how I a took a baseline measurement and give you the data that I'm going to use to measure effectiveness of different techniques.
Does Meditation Really Work?
First, let's address the elephant in the room. If you aren't sold on the benefits of meditation yet, then you aren't going to be willing to try it.
So let's take a look at a few articles that show how meditation can benefit you.
Meditation Can Physically Change Your Brain in as Little as 8 Weeks
In this interview, a Harvard neuroscientist explains the results of two tests that were done to measure the effect of meditation on the brain.
The first study showed that life-long meditators had more gray matter in certain areas of the brain, compared to people who didn't meditate. These are the areas associated with decision making, memory and the senses.
Next, they wanted to find out how long it would take meditation to take effect. Their data showed increased brain volume in five different areas of the brain, areas related to concentration, memory, learning, stress and more.
This article does a great job of explaining the benefits of mediation in plain English. For me, the most useful insight was that meditation can help us reduce activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, which is associated with self-reference and rumination.
The result of an overactive medial prefrontal cortex is the reason that we can get stuck in ruts. By calming this part of the brain down, we can move forward more easily.
List of Other Studies
Those were just a couple of the best examples of studies that show that mediation works. If you would like to read other studies, here are a few more links.
- Harvard Yoga Scientists Find Proof of Meditation Benefit
- Multiple Studies of Transcendental Meditation
- Meditation Reduces Emotional Pain by 44%
- Wikipedia article with a ton of examples
- Differences in default mode network activity and connectivity
We do This in Trading, So Why Not in Meditation?
In trading, you need to find a method that fits your personality, schedule and goals. I believe that almost everything in life is like that.
You need to find what works for you.
The career you choose will depend on your interests and abilities. Your partner needs to be a good fit for you. Hell, you are going to have a favorite flavor of ice cream, based on how your tastebuds are wired.
So why do we get stuck on one type of meditation practice, even if it might not be working for us?
Well, there can be some perfectly understandable reasons for that. Chalk it up to human nature.
Some of them may include:
- Religious affiliation
- Religious aversion
- Guru loyalty
- Peer pressure
- Lack of experience
- It's too “woo-woo” and can't possibly work
But I believe that the biggest reason is…
An inability to objectively measure the effect of mediation on ourselves.
Think about for a minute.
When you fill out your trading journal or check your brokerage account statement, you can see that you made exactly $15,384.21 this month.
That's as objective as it gets. Either you made money or you lost money and you know exactly how much.
But with meditation, there isn't really a way to measure the results.
OK, I kind of feel better today…but was it because of my meditation session or the wine I just had?
So the question still remains, can the effectiveness of meditation be measured by the average person, at home?
Let's find out…
How to Measure Your Brainwaves at Home
Until fairly recently, it was almost impossible to take any kind of meaningful measurements of your brainwaves at home. You could ghetto-rig something like this, but the results would be a little suspect, and would depend heavily on how good your soldering skills are.
In order to get a legit reading, you had to go to a lab, usually at a university, and get your brainwaves measured there.
They would use a EEG machine that costs thousands of dollars and you would have to put some weird gel on your head and attach a ton of sensors on your scalp.
…and maybe one on your ear.
The whole procedure would probably take about an hour.
I've done it before, for a marketing study. They showed us a bunch of videos and recorded our responses.
I didn't get to see the results, but it was interesting to see the process in action.
But new technology has made it possible to get started with brainwave measurement at home. I was fascinated by the potential of this technology, so I decided to do some research on it.
Here is what I found…
Brainwave Measurement Tools
First, I needed to find a way to measure my brainwaves. There are a few devices out there, but they are still pretty pricey, so I weighed my options carefully.
Why EEG Data is Important
In these product reviews, I will mention raw EEG data was one of the primary reasons for considering a device or not.
We can measure the state of our brain by measuring the dominant frequency that it gives off. Ultimately, this is the important thing that I want to be able to measure.
These are the primary brainwave frequencies and their associated states:
- Delta (0.1-3 Hz) – Associated with deep sleep
- Theta (4-8 Hz) – Memory access, learning and creativity
- Alpha (9-13 Hz) – Relaxation, meditation
- Beta (14-30 Hz) – Wide awake, focused
- Gamma (30-50 Hz) – Learning, information processing
So if I'm backtesting, I probably want to be in a Gamma state to promote learning. If I'm actually trading, I might want to be in a Theta state, to have easy access to my training.
When I'm not in the right state for the task at hand, I want to know that and be able to get myself into that state, for optimal performance.
But that is a more complex topic, to be tackled later. For now, I'm just going to measure relaxation level, as quantified by my measurement device.
Researching these devices took me a lot of time, so hopefully this summary helps you find the best solution for you, much faster.
I consider this the Cadillac of brainwave measurement devices. Money no object, this is the first device that I would buy.
- This is probably the closest that you are going to get to a lab quality EEG, at home. It has 14 sensors and will probably give you the most complete data.
- Emotiv is already doing some really cool things with their headsets. Check out this video:
They are also beautifully designed. Well, as beautiful as this type of thing can get.
Why didn't I get it then?
First, the cost. It currently runs about $800 and that is just for the headset. At the time that I was looking at it, the software development kit would cost an additional several hundred dollars.
The little brother of the EPOC+, the Insight, was an option at about $300. But again, the software was an additional cost.
The software development kit (SDK) cost was important to me because I might want to create software for the headset. But more importantly, if the software is not freely available to other developers, it is less likely that there will be useful software out there that can perform specific functions.
In particular, I wanted access to the raw EEG readings. So while this seems like the best solution out there, it was not cost effective, so I had to pass.
The next measurement device I found was the Versus. While this device had some impressive endorsements, I felt like there was too much abstraction going on with this device.
What I mean by that is, they have some cool apps, where you can do things like fly a plane with your thoughts. But I was more interested in getting the raw data and quantifiable numbers.
It was also very expensive and a lot more than I wanted to pay. Plus, the headband is bulky and didn't seem like a very elegant solution.
…and why do I need earmuffs?
So on to the next…
NeuroSky MindWave Headset
I almost bought the MindWave headset, as it seemed like a good balance between price and functionality. At only $100, it could potentially be a great deal for the money.
But as I was going through the reviews on Amazon, it seemed like they had significant quality control issues. On top of that, their SDK, with access to raw EEG readings, is also quite expensive, at $500.
So for those two reasons, I decided to pass.
They do have a new BrainLink Pro device that looks promising. But you still have to pay for the software.
The Focus Band came up on my radar, but right away, it didn't seem like a viable solution. First of all, it seems crazy expensive for what it is.
Second, I didn't see a SDK available, so it looks like you are limited to whatever the company puts out. Quite frankly, their website also looks pretty cheesy.
It could be a good product, but nothing on the website communicated that to me. The device also looks too simple to do the job.
I might be totally wrong about that, but that was my impression.
Finally, we come to the Muse headband. At $249, it was on the lower end of the spectrum, and in line with the Emotiv Insight.
I almost bought the Insight and I think it might be a better device, overall.
But what made me buy the Muse was it is still a solid device and they offer a free software development kit, with access to EEG data.
What a concept…
If you want people to use your product, maybe you should make it easier to make software with it. Having a free SDK also makes it more likely that people will create useful software with it.
I was sold. The also have a cool app that is easy to use and allows you to take measurements of your sessions. So that is what I'm going to use for this experiment.
Is Muse the best device out there for measuring brainwave activity?
I don't know, the jury is still out on that. But I feel that it is the best starting point for anyone wanting to experiment with brainwave measurement at home.
My First Experiment
So I ordered my Muse Headband and started testing it. Here is the result from one session that I posted to Twitter:
— Hugh Kimura (@TradingHeroes) August 27, 2016
The first thing that I wanted to do was setup a baseline measurement to compare to other results. So I started with a basic position that a lot of meditation practitioners recommend.
I sat in a chair with my back straight, legs at about 90 degrees, hands on my thighs and feet flat on the floor. Here's an example:
In this position, I took 10 readings over several days. They were done on random days and times, to get a good average.
I didn't use any aids in this round of testing, since this was a control test. I just tried to calm my mind as much as possible and breathed through my nose, until time was up.
Each session was only 7 minutes. As a meditation practice, that's probably not long enough to start to get any major benefits.
However, in this study, I think it is long enough to get meaningful readings of how effective a particular meditation method is. I've used a couple of meditation aids, which I will get into in future posts, and they have had a similar effect, regardless if the session was 5 minutes or 1 hour.
Just to clarify, I didn't use the app's audio prompts to help me meditate. I only used it to keep time and measure my brainwave activity.
There are “calm points” and the idea is that you get 1 point for every second your mind is in a neutral state and you get 3 points for every second your mind is in a calm state.
Here are my results from the 10 sessions:
- 8:52 am, 55% calm, 858 calm points
- 8:42 am, 28% calm, 614 calm points
- 2:22 am, 76% calm, 1050 calm points
- 9:09 am, 43% calm, 773 calm points
- 1:16 am, 51% calm, 844 calm points
- 9:22 am, 51% calm, 849 calm points
- 11:18 pm, 59% calm, 911 calm points
- 1:47 am, 55% calm, 878 calm points
- 9:27 am, 36% calm, 725 calm points
- 12:39 pm, 59% calm, 915 calm points
So the averages are:
- 51.3% calm
- 841.7 calm points
Therefore, this is what I should expect, when doing a basic mediation, with no aids and in this sitting position. This will be the baseline for future experiments.
So that was my first test of using the Muse headband to measure the effectiveness of different meditation techniques. In future blog posts, I'll show you the results from other tests that I have done.
My future tests might include:
- Audio recordings
- Environment changes
- Different meditation positions
- And more…
I also downloaded an app that shows brainwave data. I'm still learning how to use it, so more on that when I figure it out.
Here's a screenshot to the right. It shows all five brainwave frequencies and which one is dominant, in real-time.
To learn more about meditation for traders, I would also going through the Advanced Traders Mindset Course.
Have you tried meditation before? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below..
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