How to Improve Yourself With Mindfulness Technology

How to Improve Yourself in the New Year with Mindfulness Technology
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Mindfulness, traditionally an Eastern practice, has been gaining steady popularity in the West by different spiritual and secular movements. Science shows us that mindfulness meditation can positively influence our physical, psychological and cognitive functioning. Here we explore why mindfulness is being practiced by so many and how technology can help you cultivate this skill. After reading this article, you, too, might join the growing community of students, athletes, business people, scientists and others who are improving themselves through mindfulness practice.

Mainstreaming Mindfulness

Empirical evidence continues to support the claim that practicing mindfulness has a positive impact on the brain and the body. For instance, studies have shown that regular meditation practice can gradually cause changes in our brain’s gray matter and also in other structures of our brain. This has to do with our brain’s neural plasticity.

A study conducted by Harvard-affiliated researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital showed that after 8 weeks of meditation practice, gray matter density increased in the left hippocampus of the novel meditators. This region of our brain has been associated with learning and memory. In addition, areas associated with compassion, self-awareness and introspection increased, while stress-related areas of the brain decreased in size. Other studies also showed that meditation can help with many physical symptoms, including high blood pressure and chronic pain, and can boost our immune system, as well as contribute to our psychological well-being.

 However, the efficacy of mindfulness should be examined critically. This year, an article published by the RAND Corporation systematically reviewed 38 randomized controlled trials that used mindfulness meditation to treat chronic pain. Their findings show that more evidence is needed before any strong conclusions can be made about the efficacy of such interventions.

 

Dan Harris, anchor of ABC News, Nightline, and Weekend Edition of Good Morning America, started his mindfulness practice after he experienced a panic attack on live TV in 2004. He felt it was a wake-up call for him to change his unhelpful behavioral patterns. Practicing meditation for over a decade now, Harris believes that although this practice is not a panacea, it can make you happier and more successful.

He also believes some might be turned off of mindfulness practice by the somewhat spiritual terminology often used when presenting these techniques. Harris feels that when mindfulness meditation is presented in a more accessible fashion, it can appeal to a wider audience. He decided to offer a new way of talking about meditation that speaks to a skeptical mind (one he became familiar with through his own journey with mindfulness).

Meditation Apps for the Cynical Mind

The understanding of the neural mechanisms of meditation is increasing, and science can now be used to promote meditation in a novel way. The large body of scientific evidence validating mindfulness is helping the practice spread.

Dan Harris described his experience with mindfulness meditation in the book 10% Happier, a New York Times bestseller.

In the book, Dan argues that 5 to 10 minutes of mindfulness practice a day can suffice to start observing changes in the way you function and live. His book has now been turned into an online course. Offering daily lessons and guided meditation, it is intended to help people become more present and focused.

The 10% Happier course is available online and on iOS devices. The 10% Happier team’s methods can be summed up by a question they use to approach their potential subscribers: “Interested in meditation, but allergic to woo-woo?” In other words, the 10% Happier team is working on a down-to-earth and accessible way of teaching people how to meditate.

What distinguishes 10% Happier from its competitors is that the online program uses everyday language most people can understand. Filmed in April 2015, the course features Dan Harris and renowned meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein, who is also the co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society. Users of the service have access to daily video lessons and guided audio meditations. They can also ask questions to a personal meditation coach, which is a particularly popular feature of the program. The first seven lessons and meditations can be trialed for free, and after that the services are available through a subscription. The company is planning to add more mindfulness courses in the future and eventually offer a whole library of different mindfulness materials.

Other popular mindfulness mobile apps and websites include Headspace, which has over 5 million users, and Buddhify. In contrast to other apps that require you to sit still, Buddhify can be used on the go. This is an urban meditation app with many meditation options, including meditations for when you are walking, commuting or, of course, idle.

Smartphone Applications Make Mindfulness Training More Accessible

The quality and fit of your mindfulness instruction is important for the overall success of your program. However, with increasing demand, there are some questionable peddlers popping up. Thus, it is in your best interest to find a well-designed program. However, some popular programs can be financially out of reach.

Since online applications do not necessarily depend on a facilitator, they are often viewed as a more cost-effective and flexible option that is more available to a wider population. Also, these programs are offered outside of a group setting and do not require you to travel.

Considering the upside of mindfulness-based therapies delivered through technological platforms, it is not surprising these programs are increasingly becoming more popular in mental health. Research studies into the effectiveness and quality of such methods have provided further support. For instance, reductions in the symptoms of anxiety, depression and stress have been reported even in the absence of face-to-face contact, as long as the course was designed with integrity. It is expected that more research into mindfulness interventions without direct facilitation will be conducted in the near future. Web-based mindfulness interventions are also being studied in the context of families living with a person with mental illness. Sigrid Stjernswärd and Lars Hansson of Lund University in Sweden recently published results of their study that included caregivers using an online mindfulness program. They showed that after the intervention, significant improvements were detected in the levels of stress, caregiver burden and self-compassion.  

Athletes are another group of people benefiting from mindfulness training. Sports psychologists are in favor of using meditation to enhance strength and conditioning, as well as to build a more resilient psychological profile. Tennis player Novak Djokovic is just one example of a champion who uses mindfulness meditation.

Some mobile mindfulness applications are designed especially for young people. It is generally accepted that meditation is a practice children can be introduced to at an early age. Studies on technology-delivered relaxation show that it can offer a rich experience. For instance, children report feeling more relaxed and aware after using apps such as the research-based Breathe, Think, Do with Sesame, an online application that belongs to the Sesame Street family of educational tools for children.

Hi-Tech Labyrinth Meditation in the Library

Matt Cook and Jennet Croft experimented with another form of interactive mindfulness technology. They placed a Sparq Meditation Labyrinth in the academic library of the University of Oklahoma’s  Norman campus. The Sparq is a portable installation that projects a labyrinth on the floor. Cook and Croft used novel technology for the labyrinth installation and applied it to an ancient practice of contemplation by walking in a unicursal pattern.

The uniqueness of their installation is that it offers the user a choice. There is a touch-screen interface that allows the user to select his or her preferred design, taking into consideration cultural and aesthetic varieties. The available patterns include Indian, Native American and medieval European designs. The user then engages with the labyrinth that is projected using a theatrical spotlight. Everyone using the installation is encouraged to explore their individual expression. The engagement can be in the form of a walk through the labyrinth, a sitting meditation, the practice of yoga or alternative forms of mindful movement.

With the Sparq, researchers wanted to offer an alternative to the computer-centric environment of contemporary libraries. Cook is an emerging technologies librarian, and he argues that this technique can help reduce the stress, mental fatigue and distraction that often result from long hours of studying and sitting at the computer. The Sparq labyrinth, which includes a rotating frame controlled by an iPad, has so far been well-received.

Sixty-five percent of the users reported that their experience left them more relaxed and less anxious. The authors, therefore, suggest that labyrinth meditation could benefit academic library patrons. A similar digital labyrinth installation was trialed at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. It showed that labyrinth walkers had lower systolic blood pressure and pulse rate compared to controls, which supports the benefits of this mindfulness practice through the use of technology.  

Sources:

Cook M, Croft J. Interactive mindfulness technology. College and Research Libraries News, 2015; 76(6):318-322.

Fish J, Brimson J, Lynch S. Mindfulness Interventions Delivered by Technology Without Facilitator Involvement: What Research Exists and What Are the Clinical Outcomes?. Mindfulness, 2016:1011 - 1023.

Hilton, L., Hempel, S., Ewing, B.A. et al. Mindfulness Meditation for Chronic Pain: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 2017; 51: 199. doi:10.1007/s12160-016-9844-2

Hölzel B, Carmody J, Lazar S, et al. Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 2011; 191: 36-43.

Rist B, Dip G, Pearce A. Strength Training for the Brain: Using Technology to Deliver Mindfulness Training to Improve Strength and Conditioning Performance. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 2016; 38(6):81-88.

Sequeira S, Black D, Slavich G. Mindfulness meditation and the immune system: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Annals of the New York Academy Of Sciences, 2016;(1):13-24.

Stjenswärd, S, Hansson, L. Outcome of a web-based mindfulness intervention for families living with mental illness—A feasibility study. Informatics for Health and Social Care, 2016; 42(1).

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