The Value and History of the EEG with Melissa Littlefield

After finishing my previous book about lie detection technologies (The Lying Brain), I went in search other machines that monitor various physiological data, analyze them according to a specific algorithm, and produce information about what a subject is thinking. What I stumbled upon were Necomimi Brain Wave Cat Ears. First introduced in 2012, these furry ears sit atop a headset armed with a single channel recording device. The tag line reads “Make My Ears Wiggle! Be the center of attention everywhere you go!  People can’t help but watch in fascination as your Necomimi ears move in real-time according to your state of mind” ( I was curious: why the interest in broadcasting your state of mind? How did the device work? What exactly was it measuring? And, most importantly, was this an isolated product? More searching revealed that Necomimi’s cat ears were the tip of a 21st century iceberg. My list of similar devices swelled to include the Neurooon sleep mask, Kokoon headphones, a bicycle helmet known as MindRider, something called a SmartCap, a NEUROTiQ headdress, and so many more. All of these devices were based on headsets that incorporated human electroencephalography (EEG), most promised to measure the electrical activity of your brain, and, many offered to help you make behavioral changes based on that data. And so, my latest book, Instrumental Intimacy: EEG Wearables and Neuroscientific Control, was born.

Although EEG was once a laboratory-based technique involving gel, wires, and a funny cap, it has morphed into a fashionable and discrete technology that has left the laboratory and become embedded in a number of wearable devices. From headbands that promise us better meditation to headphones that ward off jet lag, EEG wearables promise more efficient, more mindful, and more controllable brains. Instrumental Intimacy tackles the question: why do we think we need devices to help us perform better, to tell us how we’re feeling, or to encourage us to change our habits? And, perhaps more importantly, from whence did ideals of instrumental intimacy emerge?

To answer these questions, I engaged in one of my favorite types of research: delving into strange archives and working backward from contemporary phenomenon towards a genealogy of their emergence. As with my first book, I resolved to follow the narrative wherever it may lead. No rabbit hole would be deemed too deep or dark or strange. First, I worked historically, considering first the emergence of human electroencephalography (EEG), its “inventor” Hans Berger, and the ways that discourses about the brain’s electricity changed our conceptions of what was worth measuring. As is the case with many new scientific instruments or fields of knowledge, ideas about and practices of intervention only become possible once a phenomenon is recognizable, measurable, and associated with particular risks or positive benefits. Indeed, before the advent of EEG in the 1920s and ‘30s, the brain’s electrical activity was not a factor in our understanding of bodily control. This was a time when REM sleep was not recognized or understood; a time before “brain death” was a common concept; and a time before being “in the zone” indicated the production of particular electrical activity.

I also worked through more contemporary source material, to trace the emergence of EEG in the print news media of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, where lay-people were first exposed to the ideas of conscious control of the brain—even during sleep! And then on to the most recent EEG-based phenomenon: wearables that bring the technology out of the laboratory and into the boardroom, bedroom, and bicycle path. This route allows me to argue that EEG wearables are a cohesive, contemporary phenomenon enmeshed in and emerging from the popularity of a wide range of wearable devices. In a world of Fitbits and smart devices, many of us have become used to monitoring our bodies on a daily basis. We count our steps, our heartbeats, or our hours of sleep via electronic devices and get up to stretch when we hear the familiar alarm that tells us we have been sedentary for too long. Wearables are expected to improve our overall physical condition. Likewise, EEG wearables offer to optimize our brains—for sport performance, meditation, sleep, work, or human interaction.

Whether we are broadcasting our state of mind through Necomimi Brainwave Cat Ears, monitoring the fatigue levels of shift workers with SmartCaps, or tracking our stress levels en route to work via MindRider, EEG wearables ostensibly externalize our inner feelings, our mental acuity, and our worldly interactions. My adventures with EEG wearables may have begun with a set of cos-play cat ears, but this technology is not a far-flung science fiction fantasy. Like other wearables, EEG-based devices are proliferating in our schools, workplaces, and homes. After writing Instrumental Intimacy, my question is no longer why we have developed wearables that track our brain’s electrical activity, but instead, where do we go from here?

Melissa M. Littlefield is an associate professor of English and an associate professor of kinesiology and community health at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She is the author of The Lying Brain: Lie Detection in Science and Science Fiction and the coeditor of The Neuroscientific Turn: Transdisciplinarity in the Age of the Brain. She is also the author of Instrumental Intimacy: EEG Wearables and Neuroscientific Control