Thursday, May 16, 2013

“Melon,” a High-tech Headband, Might Aid Metacognition


A project designer cradling a Melon headband in his hands
Image courtesy of Melon. Used with permission.
Metacognition is the process of reflecting on one’s own thought processes in order to spot inefficiencies and discover effective strategies to improve one’s learning and thinking. “Melon,” a hardware/software duo currently under development, may facilitate such self-reflection by detecting and analyzing users’ brain activity.
  
In concert with a sleek headband device designed to detect certain kinds of mental activity, a new mobile app purports to chart “focus” and enable users to track their behavior, analyze patterns in their mental states, and train themselves with simple exercises. The design team hopes that the product will turn “focus into something measurable, understandable, and improvable” and enable users to monitor how variables such as activities, time of day, and environment impact their concentration.

HOW IT WORKS

The product makes use of EEG (electroencephalography) sensors and filtering algorithms to detect and process “brainwave activity in the pre-frontal cortext," the region of the brain associated with abstract thought, working memory, and executive function. The headband places “three electrodes on the forehead region, with the primary electrode on FP1” (a region of electrode placement on the user’s left temple). These electrodes register electrical activity and record them as brainwaves. The Melon team has partnered with NeuroSky, a a biosensor company and producer of commercial EEG products, to incorporate signal processing chips into its design. These chips amplify the headband's input and apply algorithms designed for noise cancelation and filtering to improve the results.

Sample smartphone app screens on three mobile devices
Courtesy of Melon.
Used with permission.
The associated smartphone app enables users to chart their results, tag them by activity and other factors, and discover what situations influence their focus. It can suggest tips to improve concentration when one's focus drops and identify trends in an individual's unique mental habits. Tantalizingly, it suggests that users can harness the power of neuroplasticity to modify their behavior and train their minds. Offering them "games to challenge [themselves] and achieve longer periods of focus," the device taps into a recent trend popularized by such commercial applications as Nintendo's Brain Age and the Lumosity.com web site.
  
The Los Angeles-based Melon team has sought funding through a Kickstarter project, which exceeded its $100,000 pledge goal the third day into its month-long funding period. They are also soliciting software development and the creation of hardware accessories, offering documentation and instructions to interested programmers and tinkerers.

CRITICISM

Melon is certainly a fascinating product and a guaranteed conversation starter, and the initial response to the Kickstarter project has been phenomenal. However, there is plenty of reason to doubt the product's utility and potential longevity.

Man using Melon EEG headband while working at a computer
Courtesy of Melon.
Used with permission.
EEG technology has been used on humans for nearly a century and has found regular medical and scientific application for many decades. Nevertheless, the brain remains little understood, and interpreting the significance of voltage fluctuations is imprecise at best. Melon and similar products must grapple with the problem of trying to distill complex nature of the human brain, with its billions of neurons, into useful feedback based on limited EEG data. There is also the matter of the vague term “focus”does Melon merely encourage calmness, or can it in any meaningful way register whether the user is paying thoughtful attention to a specific task?

Technical concerns aside, Melon very well could be the kind of product users are initially enthusiastic about but quickly lose interest in as the novelty wears off. It is easy to imagine the device captivating interest at a party or as a personal exercise in curiosity, but difficult to conceive of users wearing the headband for extended periods of time or repetitively over the course of several weeks or more.

FINAL ANALYSIS

Perhaps the simplest rebuttal to those criticisms, however, is that they take the headband too seriously. It is not intended as a refined diagnostic tool, and treating it as such is to overlook the entertainment and whimsy of the device. Melon is a more sophisticated cousin to products such as the Star Wars Force Trainer device, Mattel's Mindflex game, and other toys.  

Even so, it does encourage its users to engage in metacognition, even if only in an admittedly superficial manner: regardless of what the smartphone app results may be, the very act of using the headband invites self reflection and increased awareness of how external factors influence cognitive performance.

In an age when a host of wireless, GPS-enabled athletic monitoring devices are regularly used by consumers to track their heart rate, perspiration, skin temperature, motion, calorie consumption, body fat, and other metrics, perhaps the time is right for a gauge of mental acuity, as well. Melon is a fun new gadget that just may offer users insight into their own biorhythms and the pace of their daily routines.

2 comments :

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  2. Thanks to author for sharing this helpful blog.Clinical psychologists have a long tradition of attempting to understand what is “on the mind” of their clients by use of psychological tests.

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