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Mindful : October 2018
spans of people engaging with almost constant social media apps.” When we practice mindfulness, we interrupt our habits of distraction by nonjudgmentally bringing our aware- ness back to the object of meditation. But smartphones aren’t designed to encourage us to hone our awareness— they’re designed to co-opt it. “That might be fine if you’re playing a game,” says Segal, “but I believe there are some elements of mindful- ness practice that require a more sus- tained, immersive experience.” Segal, a widely respected specialist in mood disorders, has also gone on record that he believes Headspace’s series of meditations for depression is not a responsible application for people with depression, who will not likely respond to the standard guided med- itations “in the same way as people who haven’t had a history of rumina- tion and critical self-judgment.” Gunatillake warns that “manipu- lating attention is the default way of designing a digital product nowadays. It’s no coincidence you’ll see tech- niques and tricks used to manipulate attention in the context of mind- fulness. People use the tools of the industry, not realizing they might be sabotaging what their product is try- ing to do.” In one extreme example, a Reddit user reported that his Apple Watch’s built-in mindfulness app, which sends reg ular reminders to take mindful breaks, was prompting him to stop and meditate every day while he drove to and from work. A writer at The Guardian reported that mindfulness apps gave her extreme anxiety. Unfortunately, unlike a human instructor, a smartphone can’t guide you through a panic attack. For a proponent of mindfulness, this might sound like the worst-case scenario: What if apps are creating a culture of mindfulness based on a training that not only doesn’t work, but actually makes us even more dis- tressed and distracted? THE POSSIBILITY OF PLACEBO Some research has suggested that meditation app users may benefit from a placebo effect. In medicine, the most rigorous research trials employ placebo groups to control for the expectations of treatment. If you think mindfulness will make you stress less, that alone might be enough to actually make you stress less. Research on mindfulness in general—not just apps—struggles to simulate placebo conditions; after all, how do you give someone fake mind- fulness instruction? Chris Noone, a researcher at the National University of Ireland Galway, figured out a way. With help from Headspace, Noone created a “sham meditation,” delivered inside the app. With the sham meditation, Noone recreated all of the conditions of app-based mindfulness training—a soothing narrator, a sleek interface, powerful brand messaging—minus the actual mindfulness. “Settle into a comfortable sitting position,” instructs the narrator. “Now simply think about whatever comes into your mind. Let your mind wander freely without try- ing to focus on anything in particular.” Noone and his colleag ues scored the participants on critical thinking, well-being, and positivity. After 30 ses- sions, there was no difference between participants in the sham meditation and participants doing the meditation practice in the app, suggesting that the mindfulness instructions in the app were having no effect on these metrics. Noone points to another, similar study, in which a group of participants was given access to written materials on mindfulness, with some partici- pants also receiving guided medita- tions and a control group receiving no resources. While the participants with mindfulness resources showed benefits over the control group, the researchers found no difference with the group that also got the guided meditations, suggesting the g uided meditations had no unique effect. The only thing science knows about mindfulness apps, says Noone, is that we don’t know their effect. He specu- lates: “I honestly think it’s very likely that there is no effect.” Hypothetically, if there’s no effect, how would popular mindfulness apps in the App Store wind up with hundreds of thousands of reviews and a five-star rating? Psychiatrist John Torous proposed a hypothesis in a commentary in the medical journal The Lancet, which he called “The Digital Placebo Effect.” “Many people have a high level of affinity for their digital devices,” Research on mindfulness struggles to simulate placebo conditions; after all, how do you give someone a fake mindfulness instruction? 64 mindful October 2018