I’m sitting on a leather couch in an unassuming warehouse in Denver. There’s a ping-pong table behind me, but I’m not at a party—I’m having my brain scanned. I’m wearing an impressive piece of tech called the WAVi headset. Shaped like a sleek bike helmet and designed by Italian firm Momo (known for its work with Ferrari, Ducati, and Logitech), the device fits comfortably atop my head while its network of 19 gray electrodes silently scans my brainwaves.
The WAVi helmet, created by engineer Ted Altshuler, astrophysicist Dave Oakley, and Crocs founder Scott Seamans, measures “brain reactivity,” or a person’s measured cognitive reaction to a stimulus. Brain reactivity is a good marker of how a person’s brain is functioning in relation to aging, as well as after a concussion or other ailment.
Each time WAVi scans your brain, it spits out a snapshot of its reactivity. By doing multiple scans over a period of time (Oakley recommends anywhere from monthly to yearly), the device measures how positive changes—such as doing more cardio—improve brain performance.
I first heard about the WAVi helmet through a research project at the BioFrontiers Institute at the University of Colorado Boulder, just down the street from where I live. Researchers were collecting data on brain functionality and tracking it over time. I wasn’t accepted into the study but was invited to a demo of the device.
My curiosity was piqued. Could the device show the positive effects of yoga on cognition? My practice is a huge part of my life: I’m the executive director of the Give Back Yoga Foundation (GBYF), a nonprofit that helps offer yoga to those in need, including veterans; incarcerated people; and individuals facing mental and physical illness, such as cancer and depression. I was curious whether the people that GBYF serves could use the device to see improvements in their brain functioning after a yoga session—or a month’s worth of classes. So I headed to the warehouse.
How it works
WAVi uses electroencephalogram, or EEG, testing (that’s what those electrodes are for) to record the brain’s reaction to sounds and images. While wearing the helmet, I was asked to click a computer mouse whenever I heard an irregular, high-pitched tone amid lower-pitched tones. This test, called the P300, measures three things: how fast my brain processes the auditory or visual stimulus, the strength of that processing, and how quickly I physically reacted to the stimulus by clicking the mouse. The P300 has been researched since the 1960s and is a good indication of cognitive health based on age.
The helmet also measures heart rate variability, or HRV, a measure of the variation in time between each heartbeat in milliseconds. HRV is controlled by the autonomic nervous system, which regulates unconscious processes such as breathing and digestion and plays a main role in the fight-or-flight response.
You can get a sense of your HRV by feeling your pulse on your wrist or neck while breathing deeply. As you exhale, the interval between heartbeats gets longer (heart rate slows). When you inhale, the interval gets shorter (heart rate increases). A high HRV indicates lower levels of stress and anxiety. People who are reactive to minor stresses—often those who have experienced trauma—tend to have lower HRV and may be at higher risk for developing heart disease, depression, and cancer.
Understanding the data
At the end of the 12-minute test, I was armed with an understanding of my current brain function. I was pleased to learn that I had a robust HRV, meaning I wasn’t likely to be stressed. I also had a strong EEG reading—a great mark of cognitive function.
Oakley explained that repeating the test could show alterations that might help me better manage potential cognitive declines and unexpected health circumstances when they arrive—or better yet—before they arrive. It could also help me try to identify the impact my yoga practice has on my brain health. For example, if I test annually and notice that my performance markers are worsening dramatically in any particular area, I can try to work with my trainers or clinicians on solutions to improve them or figure out what’s wrong.
“The brain is always changing,” Oakley said. “The real question is how your baseline brain changes, after, say a month of yoga classes.” So far, he says, it looks promising.
Oakley’s team is also using the device to examine whether guided meditation can improve brain reactivity in members of the military who have been diagnosed with PTSD. There’s not enough conclusive evidence as of yet but “it could be a game changer,” Oakley says.
Currently, you can test-drive WAVi through select medical practitioners, wellness clinics, universities, and sports clubs (find one near you at wavimed.com; the cost of the FDA-cleared test can range from $50 to $120 per session), but the company is working to make the tech even more widely available. Having tried it for myself, I can see WAVi being used in the future in yoga programs working to overcome the imprints of trauma. Positive scientific feedback like this could complement what our own programs already use—a medley of yoga and mindfulness practices for healing and transformation—to help people quantify and visualize what’s happening in their brains, and how those synapses might fire differently over time as they work toward positive change.
See also: 5 Ways Yoga Boosts Brain Health