I’m lying on a bench that feels soft and bouncy underneath my body. I’m somewhere toward the end of the session when the vibrations come to a halt. By then, the soundscape in my headphones has reached a crescendo, I can feel a constellation of lights flickering behind my closed eyelids, and my body feels a little tingly. For a split second, I feel like I’m hurtling through space like Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar. Then all the stimuli fade and a soft voice beckons me to take a few deep breaths. The most high-tech meditation session I’ve ever experienced is over.
Before I get any further, let me preface this by saying that I don’t meditate, though I have tried. At the height of lockdown last year, I cycled through a few apps, including Calm and Headspace. I also tried lying on my bed in silence, but sooner or later my mental to-do list would come crashing back. All of this to say, I had high hopes for Resonate, a new $3,000 chair that uses a combination of vibration, sound, and flickers of light to help people meditate more easily.
The chair, which launches for pre-sale today and will be available in early 2022, is the brainchild of Emmy Bush, a biomedical engineer-turned-entrepreneur, and Daniel Lennon, a former active-duty Navy pilot, also turned entrepreneur. Both shared a passion for meditation and set out to build a chair that can take you “from 60 to 0 in 20 minutes,” as the brand’s tagline says. I spent 20 minutes in the chair. I can’t say I got to zero, but I did get further than if I’d just been lying on my bed, still and silent, for 20 minutes. Either way, the experience left me wondering about the role furniture can play in improving our mental health, particularly when it seems to be backed by science.
Resonate looks like the kind of sleek lounge chair and ottoman you might find in James Bond’s villa overlooking Hollywood, with the high-tech accessories to match. The version I tried was only a prototype, but it came with all the bells and whistles: a cushy bench that sends an array of vibration patterns from head to toe, a pair of headphones that plays binaural beats (we’ll get to that later), and a padded eye mask that produces flickers of light when your eyes are closed.
Each stimulus has a purpose. Bush explains that the vibrations stimulate your vagus nerve, which runs up your back and behind your ears and plays an important role in balancing the nervous system. Stimulating the nerve has shown promise as a therapeutic option in anxiety disorders like PTSD.
Meanwhile, the soundscape in the headphones uses binaural beats, an emerging form of sound-wave therapy that makes use of the fact that the right and left ear each receive a slightly different frequency tone. When played at a certain frequency, binaural beats could help guide the brain into a particular state. “If you present a stimulus to your brain, it’ll start moving toward that stimulus,” says Bush. The light flickers work much the same way.
The chair comes with a library of options and soundscapes that can guide you into different brain states. Users can select their end-goal through an app—relaxed, sleepy, or focused—then choose from an array of soundtracks like traditional sound meditation, crystal singing bowls, or simple breath work. The more complex soundtracks, like the custom-designed soundscape I listened to, were created by in-house composers who have written music for Netflix. Bush says her team gave them a scientific template—like a particular frequency of binaural beats—which they then overlaid with a melody that is meant to elicit a more emotional reaction.
According to Dr. Audrey Brumback, a pediatric neurologist in UT Health Austin Pediatric Neurosciences at Dell Children’s, the idea that sensory stimuli can influence brain waves is well known. She points to an early feasibility study last month, in which researcher Annabelle Singer used flickering lights and sound to treat mouse models of Alzheimer’s disease (in this case, the flicker stimulated gamma waves, which help improve high-level cognitive functions, like perception and memory). And in a 2015 clinical trial, a team of scientists, engineers, and clinicians from Harvard’s Wyss Institute, the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and UMass Chan Medical School showed that subtle vibrations in vibrating pads can help reduce apnea and improve breathing for premature babies.
“Flashing lights at somebody, playing beats to them, or tapping their hand at certain frequency all are going to induce rhythmic activity in the brain,” says Brumback. “The question is, to what effect?”
Brumback herself specializes in child neurology and autism. She is currently researching the impact of rhythmic sensory feedback on people with autism who engage in stereotypical behavior like rocking their body or flapping their hands. “Doing things that are rhythmic is soothing,” she says, and stimuli like vibrations or sound could mimic those benefits, “providing a steady metronome onto which the brain activity can organize itself.” She’s even working with biomedical engineering students at UT Austin to develop a device that would allow a person with autism to dial into their preferred frequency of stimulation and test if it’s beneficial.
The Resonate chair follows a similar principle. “It’s like giving a nudge to the brain to go in that direction,” explains Brumback. “You could think of it as a template.” The problem is, just because the stimuli have tricked the brain into the same frequency doesn’t mean the experiment has worked. You know those hyperrealistic “fake or cake” videos on the internet that show something that doesn’t look like a cake but is in fact a cake? It’s kind of like that. “We may look at the same brain wave, but it may not have the same impact,” she explains.
So how can we measure if Resonate really works? “The evidence is going to be in the report of people and how they feel, and that’s messy,” she says. “I think to make it something I’d prescribe as treatment, I would want to see a placebo-controlled trial.”
The Resonate team hasn’t done a placebo-controlled trial, but Bush says it’s on their road map. For now, the chair is geared toward consumers, from private customers to hotels, spas, and even workplaces. But exploring the medical route is also part of the plan. Eventually, Bush wants to get the product covered by insurance so it counts as preventative care, but she says that process, which involves countless trials, is very expensive.
Somewhere down the line, Bush also hopes to cut the price of the chair to under $1,000. “This is something we talk about a lot because we understand we are a high price point, and we care about making meditation accessible,” she says. “We started with a higher-ticket item so we can fund the research for lower-ticket items.”
At this price point, it’s hard to say whether Resonate can make a difference for those who really need it. Until more research is done to measure the impact, it’s also hard to say if it really does make meditating easier. When my trial was over, Bush asked if I had lost a sense of time, which she explained is a strong indicator that the meditation worked. I admitted I hadn’t, but as I stood back on my feet, I did feel like I was leaving a short spa session.
The thing is, meditation is a muscle, and Resonate is not a magic chair. “The more you use the system, the better you’ll get at it,” says Bush. Arguably, a good old tech-free meditation requires practice, too, but at least with Resonate, you get a sensory nudge in the right direction.
Fast Company – co-design