The StressEraser: Handheld Meditation
---Originally published in the print edition of The Boise Weekly, July 18, 2007---
Dear Dr. Rabin:
Enclosed is a full-page ad that I tore out of SkyMall magazine on a recent flight. The product for sale is called the StressEraser and I'll be damned if I can figure out exactly what it does. The ad refers to its ability to correct our "ergotropic tuning," whatever the hell that is. I can't even decide whether that's a good thing or a bad thing. Before I sent this, I did my homework but found nothing. Can you find out what ergotropic tuning is, and tell me what this product is supposed to do?
Given the mission of SkyMall ("Distracting air travelers from thoughts of fiery death for more than 15 years"), a new advertiser might consider requiring more compelling and understandable copy; I can't decipher this ad either. The product's Web site is only slightly more helpful, describing ergotropic tuning as, basically, conditioning that makes a person react more strongly to stress—still incomprehensible mumbo jumbo. So, we're left breaking the words apart to solve the mystery. By my appraisal, the word ergotropic apparently means "an involuntary response (-tropism) to work (ergo-)." Clearly, the copywriters at SkyMall suffer from the lethargic form of this dreaded condition.
Cryptic ads notwithstanding, the StressEraser is an intriguing little device. About the size and shape of an iPhone, the $300 unit is essentially a biofeedback machine designed to read your physiological responses through the pad on your left index finger. A graphic readout displays your pulse in the form of a wave. At intervals, a tiny triangle appears above the wave, prompting you to exhale and to clear your mind. In this manner, the StressEraser attempts to slow your breathing and heart rate, helping you to coordinate them in rhythm. You can't play Super Mario Bros. on the thing, but it does keep score; the StressEraser awards you up to three points for each perfect breath and maintains a record of your progress. Until now, getting credit for simply breathing has always been the exclusive territory of high school football stars.
Speaking of high school, you may recall the absorbing Biology class filmstrip, Danny's Fascinating Autonomic Nervous System, that ultimately provided the rationale for this product. The sympathetic half of the autonomic system, stimulated by adrenaline, increases heart rate and blood pressure. This makes possible the quick physical reactions we know as the "fight-or-flight response" (the latter being my specialty anywhere outside homeroom). The reverse effect, sometimes called the "rest-and-digest response," is the realm of the parasympathetic system. This second, opposite system acts like a brake, and when stimulated on its own for any length of time, increases feelings of relaxation and calm. The StressEraser attempts to place the parasympathetic system under voluntary control by teaching you to synchronize your breath with your pulse. Learning to diminish your own stress, sans Xanax, is a skill surely worth knowing.
Does it work? Almost certainly. Is it groundbreaking? Not really. Meditation and other breathing techniques have a long history of providing the same result—well before AA batteries were $8 a pack. Concentration on your breath, or a relaxed focus on a repeated word—or mantra—induces what has been called "the relaxation response" (a term coined by medical researcher Dr. Herbert Benson in his 1985 book of the same name). Even though the same physiological reaction can be accomplished by meditation, the innovation of the StressEraser is its helpful guidance of biofeedback. This makes attaining the relaxation response much easier for the short-attention-span, high-income population, since no practice or commitment is required. The incense and sitar music are, unfortunately, sold separately.
As I have not actually tested this pocket yogi, I cannot give a firsthand opinion of its effectiveness. However, in an extensive evaluation, one reviewer noted that he scored especially high when he used the device while actually meditating at the same time (that seems unfair somehow). In the category of side effects, the only drawback appears to be that users often report falling asleep during, or shortly after use. In response, the maker has now begun testing the StressEraser for use in sleep induction, but so far, it hasn't been proven to work any better than just watching Charlie Rose.
Still, after a great deal of research, I cannot accurately define ergotropic tuning. The only possibility remaining is that it has something to do with improving the selection of in-flight radio stations pumped through the armrest. If StressEraser can do something about that, they might be able to finally advertise in a magazine that doesn't compete for space with a barf bag.
"The Antidote" was a weekly column published from July 2005 to March 2008. Dr. Rabin tackled the hype surrounding alternative medicine, folk treatments, miracle supplements and cures-for-all-ills. His skeptical, evidence-based approach did not earn him many friends among local practitioners and multi-level marketers, but his monthly salary of two movie tickets made it all worth it.
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