Monthly Archives: November 2015

OM Signal Shirt on the Slopes

I took my OM Signal shirt on the slopes at Breckinridge for the Thanksgiving weekend. This short post is attributed to a full weekend spent on the slopes and not shuffling through mounds of data nor posting my regular blog. I had a good time with family and friends:

OM Signal Shirt on the Slopes

I had gotten an OM Signal shirt as part of its initial launch last summer. Though it was a bit overdue (about a year) and the shirt chased me via post from London to San Francisco to Denver I never gave up on it because they tried really hard to make it right.

The first shirt was like a compression shirt that constricted your chest, terribly uncomfortable. This is not that shirt, but this is what it felt like:

OM Signal Shirt on the Slopes I tried to run with it…once. It was just too uncomfortable. So my two OM Signal shirts sat the summer out in my sports kit drawer.

Fast forward to the late summer and OM Signal helpfully sent me another shirt at no cost. This is the shirt I took skiing. Unlike the first one, this same sized shirt was very comfortable. There is a band inside the shirt at chest level, but it felt fine to the point that I didn’t even notice it. The rest of the shirt is form fitting, but not noticeable either. So huge improvement and thumbs up to OM Signal for the improvement.

Here are two plus hours of skiing at Breckinridge:

OM Signal Shirt on the Slopes

You can see the ski runs pretty clearly. And the breaks. I was intrigued by the respiration rate as OM Signal is the only integrated product I know of that has both heart rate and respiration for a sporting environment.

Looking at how to use the quantification to improve performance, I think the respiration might be an indicator of calmness while skiing. That may not be true, but worth a look.

The app is clean and has a nice interface. Of equal quality to a Jawbone or Fitbit. I would prefer it less structured and I realize I am not center of the bell curve for users.

So no real quantified self goodness in this post, just a report on my OM Signal shirt and a bit of time on the slopes. You will hear more about the shirt as I am now intrigued and will do some additional tests. Comments and ideas are always welcome.

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Smart Drugs Do Not Make Me Smart

I thought I would try a nootropic, or “smart drug,” to see how it would work for me. I really like the podcast Smart Drug Smarts, by Jesse Lawler. It is well produced, informative and entertaining. Jesse is great, however, he does not shy away from pitching his products as in each episode he encourages you to buy his nootropic, Nexus.

Smart Drugs Do Not Make Me Smart

Nexus ingredients include Aniracetam, CDP Choline, Phosphatidylserine, and Pycnogenol®. On the website the product claims to “enhance cognition, beat stress, and sharpen concentration.” It goes on to claim that it created with fast thinking and neuroprotectivity in mind. The capsules are not cheap. At $1.00 a capsule and a recommended daily dose of 2 capsules, you are in for $60 a month, or $55 if you subscribe. At that cost, it had better work.

My Question

Would Nexus improve my cognitive performance?

What I Did

I tested myself using eight cognitive tests in the Quantified-Mind app after either taking Nexus or not. I then compared scores of the group of tests where I took Nexus to the scores where I did not take Nexus to see if the smart drug improved my test scores.

How I Did It

I created a spreadsheet column of randomly assigned numbers between o and 1. Each day in the afternoon I checked the next number in the column. It if was 1, I took two caplets of Nexus. If it was 0, I did not take Nexus. Thirty minutes after I took the capsule (or not), I would open the Quantified-Mind app and take eight tests. Those tests took approximately 15 minutes. They ranged from memory tests like dual-n-back to attention and reaction tests. I took down each test score for all eight tests and put them in the spreadsheet. After 19 tests, I compared the averages in the two groups and did a student’s TTest to see if the differences in readings were significant.

What I Learned

Smart drugs do not make me smart. Of the eight tests I took during each session, there was no significant difference in the readings between if I had taken Nexus or I had not. Here are my scores:

Smart Drugs Do Not Make Me Smart

You can see that none of the tests had a statistically significant difference. If there was, the TTest P value would have been less than .05. You can argue that the sample size was too small. If we discard the TTest and just look at the averages, my scores seemed to go down in all but two of the categories.

Of interest is that on one test I seemed to do better – Attentional Focus. On that test you stare at two lines and tap a key when one gets longer. It can be difficult to maintain staring at the lines and the Nexus seemed to improve my averages there. On all the others, where I had some cognitive task to perform, my scores seemed to be degraded.

So I guess if I had an important report to write and I took Nexus I would stay focussed on the keyboard and keep typing, but the words that came out might not make as much sense.

One of the things I learned from Smart Drug Smarts podcast is that a test of one brain…is a test of one brain. The mixture found in Nexus might work for you. And I will continue being a fan of Jesse and his podcast. It is intelligent, fun, and informative. I just won’t buy his nootropics because they don’t work for me.

One thing I did learn in several sessions I had to throw out is that a lack of sleep trashes cognitive performance. On those days that I had had a poor night sleep the night before my scores were awful. I threw out those sessions, and I learned that sleep trumps nootropics with respect to performance. So in the future if I get a good nights sleep, and have an inexpensive cup of coffee in the morning my brain will be in good enough shape to handle that work report without having to resort to smart drugs.

Meditation Breakthrough With Brain.fm

As a followup to my earlier work on binaural beats, I did another tracking study using Brain.fm. After fine tuning the approach and trying it for more than a month, I had a meditation breakthrough with Brain.fm.  I found a hugely useful technique to help me have a smoother wakeup.

breakthrough with brain.fm
What it might look like to wake up without the brain working to full capacity.

Each morning I conduct a tracking routine that includes heart rate variability (HRV), blood pressure, blood glucose and various body dimension measurements. In my last study, I had used Brain.fm for five-minute sessions without any discernable effect on my physiology. With feedback from the founders of Brain.fm, I retooled the tracking approach and tried again.

What I Did

The advice I got was that it takes 10 minutes to entrain the brain using binaural beats. I redid the tracking study so that I added a 10-minute session prior to taking a five-minute HRV reading. I wanted to ensure I had enough time listening to the binaural beats so the would be effective.

To determine the efficacy of Brain.fm’s binaural beat meditation soundtrack, I compared it to similar sounding music without binaural beats embedded. I wanted to compare the effect on HRV after 10 minutes of binaural beats vs an identical period of time without the beats.

How I Did It

I created a Google spreadsheet with a randomly generated number (0 or 1) for each day in the study. On waking, I would look at the sheet to determine whether to use Brain.fm (1) or a Pandora station I called “meditation” (0) that I set up with reference artists Deva Premal and Krishna Das.

If I used Brain.fm I would turn on the unguided meditation for 10 minutes and sit relaxed with normal respiration.

breakthrough with brain.fm

On completion of the 10 minute session, I put on the Polar H7 heart rate belt and the HRV Logger from Marco Altini and took a five-minute HRV reading while continuing to listen to the Brain.fm binaural beats.

On days when I used the Pandora station I would conduct the exact same procedure listening to the meditative music without binaural beats. On completion for both music sources, I would log my rMSSD measurement in the Google spreadsheet.

What I Learned

I was unable to find a significant difference in my physiological state when using music with binaural beats or music without binaural beats. Across 30 measurements, my average rMSSD with binaural beats was 50.9 vs 49.8 without binaural beats. The T Test showed that there was no statistically significant difference between the two soundtrack types (p=.87).

The Brain.fm site says that its binaural beats would have an immediate effect, and it appears that immediate means at least longer than 10 minutes. As a tactical approach to calming the body or the mind on waking, I don’t find it practical to have a preparatory session longer than 10 minutes. So for me, Brain.fm’s binaural beats are not a good tool to assist in my morning meditation.

The Breakthrough With Brain.fm

Though the soundtrack with embedded binaural beats did not have a discernable effect on my HRV readings, I did have a breakthrough with Brain.fm. My continued use of the product showed me without question that some form of music played during morning deep breathing work made it more likely I would engage in the activity and stick with it once I started.

There is something pleasant and energizing about sitting quietly for 10 minutes while my physical system comes online and wakes up. I found myself getting out of bed more readily knowing the session was the first thing I would do. Once I started the session it seemed to go quickly. Often I was surprised when my device indicated I had successfully completed the session.

For my morning sessions, I will still use Brain.fm. It has a pleasing format, it easy to use and I like the soundtrack. It is packaged well enough to be ready for use. I am realistic about it jacking my brain with frequencies in less than 10 minutes. That does not happen. Sometimes, however, relaxing tunes is just good enough to make a product useful and for that, Brain.fm is a winner.

Muse Indirectly Crushes Meditation Training

Looking at my morning tracking routine I realized that one of the most impactful wearable devices I have used has been the Muse EEG headband. After using it for more than five months, I think that Muse indirectly crushes meditation training.

I started using the Muse EEG headband in June of this year and have sat with it 152 sessions. The data the product has given me has not been the source of value. The source of value has been that the product has helped me become a habitual meditator.

Muse indirectly crushes meditation training

Muse claims to read your EEG and give you a “calm” score. It also awards a secondary score that is cumulative as a game style mechanic to keep you coming back.

When I started with Muse I took a straightforward sporting approach to the mediation training.  I would practice each morning with a goal to get higher “calm” scores. I saw it similar to training for a 5K where I would look to my speed. The fun would be to see how much higher I could push my calm score with practice.

Unfortunately, it did not work out that way. I did not improve the score even with months of  practice.

Muse indirectly crushes meditation trainingThe calm score itself is of questionable usefulness. It did not correlate with any other physiological factor that I compared it with. For example, when looking at the correlation between the score and heart rate variability (HRV) across 145 readings, there was no relationship (Pearson r = -.016). I had taken HRV readings simultaneous with the Muse readings and they did not track together at all. Blood glucose levels (r= -.17), average resting heart rate (r = .13), blood pressure (r=.21) all were at best a weak relationship.

Thinking that the calm score might somehow be associated with how distracted or stressed I was, I looked at a morning mood score I had been keeping versus the calm score. Oddly, I found a moderate inverse relationship between the Muse calm and my perception of mood (r = -.32). That meant I was more “calm” when I was in a lousier mood that morning. That made no sense at all.

So my original idea of practicing to increase my calm score did not pan out for me.  So why do I believe Muse indirectly crushes meditation training? Because for me, meditation had been boring and numerous attempts in the last 32 years to incorporate it in my daily routine had failed miserably. Chasing the Muse score in a structured way each morning I broke the boredom and acquired the habit of meditating. And meditating has scientifically validated positive benefits.

The Muse basic session is six minutes long with a starting calibration of one minute then a five minute reading. After multiple months of starting doing these simple six minute readings with the headband I found I had started comfortably expanding the amount of time I was sitting quietly.

First, I incorporated a ten-minute session before the Muse session to test the effectiveness of binaural beats, and that ended up with me sitting quietly for fifteen minutes each morning. Then a podcast on HRV inspired me to add twenty minutes of paced breathing later in the day. I was able to expand because I had gotten comfortable with sitting during the initial months of short six minute Muse sessions.

So the paradoxical outcome presents itself. In the past when I had tried to “learn” to meditate I could not do it for long and was unsuccessful. When I introduced the game of chasing the Muse calm score I was able to get enough time sitting quietly to find meditation doable and even pleasurable. And when I had enough data to determine the score I had been chasing was meaningless I had worked my way up to 35 minutes of sitting a day. That is why Muse indirectly crushes meditation training.

I imagine the engineers who created the scoring system and the EEG technology may not appreciate my assessment. It seems better to have the scoring and EEG technology to be a valued feature. However, the product bills itself as a meditation assistant. In that, it performs its job perfectly.

To someone looking for a Quantified Self product review on Muse the answer may sound like something out of a wearables zen koan. To realize the value of the Muse product, diligently try to improve your Muse score until you are sitting in comfortable in daily meditation realizing that the score never was the point.

 

 

 

Slow Breathing Workout Increases My HRV

What is the Slow Breathing Workout?

I heard Richard Gervitz talking about a slow breathing workout as part of a daily discipline on the Quantified Body Podcast. I had started doing slow breathing sessions back in May 2014 though I had never specifically looked at the effect on my daily heart rate variability (HRV) reading. And I had fallen out of the habit so I was interested in trying it again.

slow breathing workout

A slow breathing workout means taking your respiration to a slower pace than normal with inhalations and exhalations of equal length. This is not normal breathing as it synchronizes the cardiac and respiratory systems. Gervitz recommended 20 minutes per day.

The beneficial effects of doing this breathing include a more flexible autonomic nervous system, increased resilience to physical or psychological stress, and sharpened mental clarity. Motivated by what I heard on the podcast, I decided to jump back into a disciplined slow breathing workout.

My Question

Could doing 20 minutes a day of deep, meditative breathing in the afternoon improve my morning HRV readings?

What I Did

I had a standing practice of measuring my HRV for five minutes on waking each morning. This provided a baseline of 24 readings. I began doing 20 minutes of evenly paced breathing each afternoon. This provided 18 additional morning readings that were impacted by the slow breathing workouts. I controlled for confounders by removing readings where circumstances were out of the norm like low amounts of sleep or too much food.

How I Did It

For my morning readings, I used Marco Altini’s Heart Rate Variability Logger to take a five-minute rMSSD reading.

slow breathing workout

Prior to the five minute readings I would listen to 10 minutes of soft music to settle in and ensure I was relaxed. For my afternoon HRV breathing workouts, I used a basic breath pacer app for iOS. With it, I could set the number of seconds per inhalation and exhalation. This would allow me to breath slowly and at a steady pace for the sessions.

slow breathing workout

I also like to get biofeedback as I do my slow breathing, so I used Heartmath Pro to track how effectively I got I aligned my cardiac and respiratory systems. The Heartmath dashboard shows the HRV in the top panel and the heart beat frequencies in the lower left panel.

slow breathing workout

The useful thing about the biofeedback is that I could adjust the length of my inhalations and exhalations until I found the highest level of alignment. Without feedback I would have to use levels derived from published data. With the biofeedback I had set up slow breathing exercises tailored for my physiology.

What I Learned

Starting an afternoon slow breathing workout regime increased my average morning HRV readings to a significant degree. You can see the lift in the scores on the graph of readings through the period:

slow breathing workout

Looking at my readings pre-program my rMSSD averaged 42.8 for the morning session and post-program it averaged 54.8, a 28% increase. Doing a TTest comparing the readings before and after being on the slow breathing workout showed a p-value of .037, meaning the change was statistically significant. You can see the raw data that is the basis of the calculations.

I found my optimal breathing came out at 7 seconds for each inhale and 7 seconds for each exhale. I started with 5.5 seconds per inhale and exhale and kept moving it up until I found my level.

That said, the biofeedback application is not necessary to get the benefit of a slow breathing workout. Though it is helpful to get the biofeedback readings, a simple breathing app with 20 minutes of practice each day will give you all the benefits. And I will continue with it now that I have established its value.