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 …….