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See Inside November / December 2009

MIND Reviews: Brainy Gifts

From home sleep-cycle monitoring to a tap into the psychology of motivation, these clever products promise to get inside your head

Catch Some Slow Waves
Zeo sleep monitor ($399)
www.myzeo.com

It takes about an hour to glue more than a dozen sensors to a research subject about to undergo polysomnography, the technology designed to monitor brain waves and other physiological variables used to characterize our time asleep.

A Boston-based company called Zeo now lets you simply strap on a headband, similar to a runner’s sweatband, that allows you to obtain information about your own sleep patterns that would otherwise only be available from a costly laboratory setup.

Three electrodes attached to the headband record hour by hour what happens after you close your eyes: REM (rapid eye movement), light and deep sleep (various non-REM measures, such as slow waves), nocturnal wakings and length of rest. The zigs and zags of z’s then move wirelessly to a fancy alarm clock, which crunches the electrophysiological brain dump to yield an overall sleep quality score and a graph, below the digital hours and minutes display, of what transpired the night before—whether you were dreaming at 3 a.m. or in a light snooze an hour later. Last night’s download can be moved via a memory card to a computer, where you may further analyze your sleep history and receive sleep hygiene recommendations (don’t drink alcohol or exercise before bedtime).

I tried Zeo at a sleepover press event this past June, and the most surprising result was not the percentage of REM versus non-REM or any other sleep-cycle phenomenon but rather how little I actually slept. What I thought was six hours or so was actually five hours and 13 minutes, a seeming explanation for the half-daze that hangs over so many of my mornings.

So should you try Zeo? Even with the consumer-oriented streamlining, the whole process seems like a lot of work for the third of your life that is supposed to be the opposite of work. It depends if you’re the kind of person who likes heart rate monitors for a workout and handheld calorie counters for restaurant sojourns. If you really, really want to know yourself better—and your partner doesn’t mind that you look vaguely ridiculous at bedtime, Zeo may be just the thing for you. All it lacks is an uplink to Twitter.  —Gary Stix

Feel Smarter Than a Computer
Arimaa board game ($29.99)
www.arimaa.com

When IBM computer Deep Blue defeated chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997, it was by evaluating an immense number of moves in a very short time—a feat of brute-force calculation that hardly qualifies as intelligence. That mixed victory for the artificial-intelligence (AI) community got computer scientist Omar Syed of 4You Net Services thinking. If he could create a strategy game that was superficially similar to chess but had many more possible moves, maybe he could outmaneuver computers and reinvigorate the search for truly intelligent software.

Arimaa, the result of his efforts, was released as a box set earlier this year (although a small group of hard-core gamers have been playing it online for years). As an incentive for the AI community, Syed is offering a $10,000 prize for anyone who can write a program that will defeat the best human players. So far our species still has the upper hand.

But Arimaa isn’t only for computer geniuses and gaming geeks. I, for one, am neither, and I have never been particularly apt at chess. But as soon as I started a game with a friend, the intimidation vanished. The rules are simple enough for kids to learn, and the game was creative and engaging. What’s more, Arimaa levels the playing field between opponents because—in contrast to chess—both will be equally inexperienced. So in addition to flexing our unique human brains, we had fun, too.  —Frederik Joelving

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