The Map, the Territory, and the Fitness Tracker

I recently concluded a year-long experiment with the Muse meditation headband. The Muse is a fascinating device that sits on your head (rather like eyeglasses, but resting on your forehead instead of your nose) and measures your brain activity during meditation practice. By connecting with your phone over Bluetooth, the headband gives you feedback in the form of an audio landscape: If your brain is hectic you hear the distant rumbling of storm clouds, and if it calms you hear birdsong. It’s lovely.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the experiment was that I got caught up in Muse’s “gamification” angle: the app encourages you to meditate every day by keeping track of how many days in a row you’ve been doing it. This is much like Snapchat’s “streaks” feature, which encourages you to build the habit of using the app by keeping a ​tally of how many days in a row you’ve engaged with it. After a few days of continuous engagement, the sunk cost fallacy takes over: You don’t want to have to start over, and therefore have an incentive to do it one more time.

For most of the last thirty years, my meditation practice has been sporadic. Sometimes (especially on vacation) I could go many weeks without sitting on the cushion. That changed over the last year as I started using the Muse headband. I now had a reason — however tenuous — to develop a strong habit, and I did.

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The “Me” dashboard in the Muse app. Note the various gamification elements.

Last week I opened the Muse app to show it to a colleague ​and realized that my 139-day streak had ended. The app showed I had meditated zero days in a row in my current streak, even though I was pretty sure I’d done a session the day before. Was it an error in the system? I doubted myself. Had I really done the session or not? Was I really going to have to start over again after almost half a year of consistent use?

And then it dawned on me: does it matter? After all, the benefits of meditation have nothing to do with accruing an arbitrary currency in an information environment. (In fact, some meditation traditions insist that if you’re struggling towards a goal you’re doing it wrong.) I decided to end the experiment and am now back to meditating on my own, with no devices other than a simple timer. There is one difference, though: the habit has stuck; I’ve been doing it every day since without the need for external validation. So I consider my time spent with Muse a worthwhile investment. However, it was enlightening to realize how even something as personal and introspective as meditation can be turned into an act of persuasion. (For positive ends, in this case.)

Alfred Korzybski said, “The map is not the territory.” Well, my Muse streak is not my meditation practice, my Apple Watch’s health rings are not the state of my health, my Sleep Cycle “sleep quality” measure is not the actual quality of my sleep, and the number on my bathroom scale’s LCD screen is not an inherent characteristic of my well-being. These things are signs on a map that is constantly being redrawn, expressing diverse aspects of a territory that is in a ​constant state of flux. They help me be a better steward of this domain, but they are not the domain itself. In information environments, this separation between the map and the territory can seem to dissolve, and we must work to bring the focus back to what matters: being here and now — much as one does in meditation.