Mindfulness Apps: The Shake Weight of Mental Exercise?

Headspace. Calm. Simply Being. Omvana. The number of mindfulness apps has surged recently, and some in the scientific community are skeptical about their claims.

Dr. Judson Brewer, the director of Research at the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, notes that no companies have published any data on the effectiveness of their own apps. Instead, they cite scientific studies to show the effectiveness of practicing mindfulness in general. As he works to develop an app, Craving to Quit, he says that using rigorously gathered scientific data is critical for making a service that will maximize benefits for users.

Dr. Richard Davidson, founder of a leading global mindfulness research facility, the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin, offered a blunt assessment of a tech product, NeuroSky’s MindWave Mobile, designed to help mindfulness practitioners. Since scientists are in the early stages of identifying which brain signals indicate true mindfulness practice, using biofeedback to guide one’s practice seems premature. Dr. Davidson says, “The effort is absurd. Literally, it makes no sense.”

Davidson and others are concerned that concentrating on signals outside of oneself will detract from practicing mindfulness, as the practice is intended to strengthen one’s own internal understanding and control of the mind. This concern can be applied to apps as well as biofeedback devices.

What’s more, technology creates the very problem that practicing mindfulness solves, namely, our distracted state of mind, leading to an inability to focus. Larry Rosen, a psychology professor dedicated to studying the impact of technology on the user, discovered that students couldn’t remain focused on an important assignment for a 15-minute session.  Rather, the students averaged less than six minutes of on-task focus, with many students unable to last more than two minutes without distracting themselves by texting, emailing, or using social media.

The costs of multitasking are steep. Completing several projects by multitasking takes more time than completing the projects one at a time would take. Multitasking also yields more mistakes and poor learning retention. The learning you do acquire is shallower, meaning you’re less likely to know how to apply the learning to new situations.

Using an app to cultivate mindfulness tempts users to multitask -- precisely the behavior that practicing mindfulness is trying to counter by growing one’s ability to focus. It’s like eating only ice cream in an attempt to lose weight.

While mindfulness is simple to practice, it isn’t always easy. Having an external aid may help if one has the willpower to resist temptation.  However, using an external aid limits the benefits that can be gained. Similar to using a Shake Weight to exercise, one may get more fit, just not as much as if one were to use free weights.

Benefits of Mindfulness Apps

That being said, some exercise is better than no exercise. For those who are new to mindfulness and naturally possess enough willpower to focus, an app might be a good way to ease into the practice. To use another analogy, an app could provide the training wheels needed to get novices out on the road.

One advantage of mindfulness apps is that there are numerous ones to try out. Several present lessons on the basics of mindfulness and offer customization options. I’ve found that Headspace, Whil, and Breathe provide concise explanations and useful activities to cultivate mindfulness. The customization options in Whil especially appeal to those of us who are interested in specific benefits.

One cautionary note is that a few individuals have reported extremely adverse reactions during their intro to mindfulness. If you have symptoms such as hyperventilating, a racing heart, trembling, or nausea, stop immediately. Such reactions are rare. If you’re reluctant to try due to fear, however, you may want to consider working with a mindfulness instructor who knows how to handle such reactions.

Regardless of how you start, you’ll eventually want to take the training wheels off and practice on your own sometimes to gain the full benefits. In the meantime, try out a few apps and see what works best for you.

Which one(s) do you like the most? Why? I’d love to hear from you about your experiences with mindfulness apps!