March Mindfulness is an annual Mashable series that explores the intersection of meditation practice and technology. Because even in 2022, March doesn’t have to be madness.
The first time a friend with anxiety disorder told me about the Sensate, I was skeptical. Here was what looked like a black plastic pebble — or maybe a computer mouse for someone with small hands — that’s supposed to sit in the middle of your chest. There it sits and vibrates at various low frequencies while the Sensate app plays calming music. And you have to pay $250 for the privilege.
Really? I’m all about quirky meditation gadgets, and I’m not averse to ones that vibrate in order to help you practice different kinds of breathing (the $169 Core meditation trainer was a particular favorite for this reason). Still, the Sensate seemed too minimalist, too steep a price, a New Age-y step too far. My friend swore otherwise; the device’s 10, 20 or 30-minute sessions worked to calm her anxiety. The mostly 5-star Amazon reviews raved about its ability to induce sleep. That made sense, at least, as anyone who’s had a cat purring on their chest at bedtime can attest.
So I got a review unit. (The device, technically called the Sensate 2 though no Sensate 1 is available, is made by a startup in London called BioSelf.) And promptly … did nothing with it for months. My eyes were still rolling too hard at the notion that this would work for me in any way. Finally, I broke down and tried it. And tried it again. And again and again, for days. I found myself utterly addicted to its calming, time-distorting effects.
I’d say I wanted to kick myself for not believing my friend and trying the device earlier, but I’m feeling too chill to administer the boot.
Vagus, baby, vagus
Let’s back up and look at the science behind what’s going on here, because there’s a fair amount of it. I’d learned about the importance of vagus nerve stimulation when I took a course in neurosculpting several March Mindfulnesses ago. The vagus nerve is a long and complex one that connects the brain to the gut (increasingly seen as our second brain) via the chest. The more we study it, the more bodily functions it seems to regulate; the vagus is partly responsible for inflammation levels, metabolism, and how hungry you feel.
But the most intriguing studies of recent years have shown that stimulating the vagus nerve boosts the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). That’s the one that nixes our natural “fight or flight” reaction to stressful events; researchers call the PNS response “rest or digest,” or “feed or breed” if you’re feeling frisky. And for good reason: the PNS also boosts Heart Rate Variability (HRV), a key health metric. Low HRV during daytime is linked to a number of negative health outcomes including sexual dysfunction.
So how do you stimulate the vagus nerve? You vibrate it, basically, increasing what researchers call “the vagal tone.” In the neurosculpting class we tried some old-school methods: gargling and chanting. There’s a reason why the traditional Buddhist chant “OM” can feel relaxing (one small study showed its positive effects by putting OM chanters in MRI machines).
Under-the-skin electrodes that stimulate the vagus nerve have been effective in treating depression and epilepsy, while a less invasive electrode attached to the ear — another outpost of the vagus nerve — reduces stress caused by tinnitus and the pain of migraines. Vagus nerve stimulation is also showing promise in the treatment of PTSD, reducing symptoms by 31% in a recent 20-patient study. (Some Sensate users with PTSD have raved about the device, while others found the vibration could trigger anxiety if set too high.)
Core meditation trainer review: The orb, it works!
But electrodes are a little extreme, not to mention expensive, and whom among us wants to chant OM or gargle for more than a few minutes? You could try ASMR videos, which seemed to help participants in a couple of 2018 studies, but we’re not exactly sure how they work or whether they work for everyone. You could spent a lot of time at concerts or nightclubs standing next to the speakers and feeling the bass in your ribs, but your ears won’t thank you. You could try coaxing your cat to sit on your sternum and purr on command, but, y’know, cats. (The soothing effect of purring may be one reason why cat ownership is associated with reduced risk of death from cardiovascular disease).
In other words, there’s an opening for consumer devices that produce the same effect. The Sensate vibrates in the range of 20 to 140 Hz, just as cats do. Studies of vibration therapy, while generally positive, are in their infancy. BioSelf says the Sensate improved Heart Rate Variability after a 20 minute session in 86 percent of patients in its in-clinic study, but that hasn’t been peer-reviewed yet. The company is careful not to make treatment claims that would require FDA approval. Another vagus nerve stimulating device, the GammaCore ($450 for 3 months), has been approved by the FDA for migraines and cluster headaches.
So does the Sensate improve HRV? My HRV as measured by my Apple Watch is higher than average and ticking up regardless, thanks to a daily running practice, so it’s hard to tell whether the Sensate is having an effect there. But I do have one other kind of data to contribute, because I happen to be testing a Continuous Glucose Monitor for a future review.
There’s a link between high blood sugar levels and stress, one that became clear on my charts: Difficult personal news or a work meeting could spike my glucose for hours even if I hadn’t eaten. Regular meditation, which I tend to do using the Apple Watch’s Mindfulness app, didn’t have much effect. Yet even 10 minutes of using the Sensate brought that sugar spike down to baseline.
The categories of Sensate meditation music: Not as New Age-y as they look.
Many of us have this experience: When our heart is thumping and our thoughts are racing, basic meditation just can’t cut through. Even a few minutes of trying to concentrate on our breathing at such moments can feel like an uncomfortable eternity. For people suffering from trauma, it can actually exacerbate symptoms — or lead to a “freeze” response similar to fight or flight. In the neurosculpting class, our teacher spent 20 minutes simply soothing our primitive brains and their hierarchy of needs (this room is safe, you’ve got a bottle of water, the bathroom is down the hall, lunch is coming) before the real meditation work could even begin.
What the Sensate appears to offer is a shortcut to that soothed state. The pebble sits in your sternum and vibrates in ever-changing ways. I was not prepared for how powerful the vibration felt in this spot, like my body had been designed to fit the Sensate rather than the other way around. (My wife had a similar experience with the Sensate, and offered one piece of advice: Do not wear a push-up bra while using it, or your breasts might absorb the vibrations that are supposed to reach your bones.)
It’s worth starting your meditation practice right now. Here’s why.
The Sensate app is still very bare-bones. My main wish for the next update is for it to connect with the Apple Health app, so I can track my Mindfulness Minutes without having to keep a separate meditation timer running. Still, the Sensate app connects to the Sensate device with ease — press a button and you’re there. Select a music track (the track determines the length of the meditation), adjust the volume and vibration level, and away you go.
My biggest fear around the Sensate was that the music would be too New Age-y for its own good. This was my experience recently with a popular music-based meditation app called Synctuition: Too much syrupy melody of the pan-flute variety left me more irked than when I started. The Sensate music, however, felt far more chill, constrained, even hypnotic.
Sensate’s music employs binaural beats, which is something else we’re just starting to study in a scientific context. Binaural beats — putting different frequencies of sound in each ear, basically — have been shown to reduce anxiety in pre-surgery patients and improve long-term memory in some cases. I’ve used binaural beat apps before, at the urging of friends who use them, with no noticeable results.
But with Sensate, something in the combination of the music and the on-chest vibrations — which seem deliberately out of sync with the music, just as the frequencies in each earphone are deliberately different — works like crazy. One odd result of this was that the time absolutely flew by. Normally the prospect of a 30-minute meditation fills me with dread. But when I meditate for that long with the Sensate, I have to check my watch afterwards to make sure a half-hour has actually passed.
And yes, Sensate meditation last thing at night made it easier to sleep afterwards. This is surely helped by the fact that I was lying down anyway (you can in theory meditate while standing or sitting using the Sensate lanyard around your neck, but it’s much more comfortable in a prone position).
Interestingly, I haven’t yet actually fallen asleep during a Sensate meditation, even in moments when my cat is snuggled up next to my chest, adding his own soporific purring to the mix. The purring chest pebble — much stronger than his efforts by comparison, sorry cat — is out of sync enough that it kept my brain focused. But it definitely put me into the half-awake state of hypnogogia beloved by dream hackers.
Bottom line: Is it worth it?
$250 still seems a steep price for what it is, and the Sensate benefits from having no major competitor in this space yet. Our lives are filled with so many vibrating high-tech objects already that surely one of them can be made to stimulate our vagus nerves too. Maybe one of these high-tech vibrators on the right setting will work as well on the chest as in the nether regions. Or perhaps a special sternum-shaped smartphone case could make use of these things we all have buzzing away in our pockets incessantly anyway.
In the meantime, you’re the best judge of what this level of potential calm is worth to you. The company does have a “try it worry-free for 40 days” policy, if that helps.
Personally, based on my experience, I’d choose a Sensate over a $70-a-year Calm or Headspace subscription. I’d even pick it over the Core meditation trainer or the $250 Muse 2, as much as I still love the Muse’s biofeedback from within your brain. The Sensate’s experience is something I actively crave, even now as I write this. My anxiety would like good vibes only, please.