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expert reaction to daily meditation app and focus and memory

Researchers, publishing in Nature Human Behaviour, reported that a daily meditation app may improve focus and memory in healthy young adults.

 

Dr Ashok Jansari, Senior Lecturer in Cognitive Neuropsychology, Goldsmiths, University of London, said:

“This study by a team led by University of California neuroscientists brings together a very western problem with a very eastern approach. In today’s busy society and with the ubiquitous nature of technology, we are increasingly having to concentrate on an complex amount of information coming at us from a variety of different sources (spoken at us from individuals or phones, sent to us through social media and available through the TV and other forms of media). One of the keys to successfully navigating this ‘onslaught’ is to be able to focus attention on one stream of information while ignoring or at least ‘keeping on hold’ other sources. This challenge has become more and more difficult exposing the human brain’s limitations in how much it can concentrate on and how much it can be distracted; the end result is making mistakes in everyday life because of forgetting things, starting one task and not following it through because of being distracted by another one, etc. Ancient Hindu forms of concentrating the mind through different forms of mediation have become more and more popular with very well-documented benefits on mental well-being, improvements to the immune system and even measureable changes in the thickness of areas of the brain known to be involved in controlling our attention and our emotions. Despite these known benefits, the amount of time-investment can impact people’s motivation to attempt meditation. Further, the training in meditation tends to be at a group level which by definition tends to work at the rate of the average of the group; given the unique, personal nature of meditation practices, this can deter individuals from participating.

“The University of California team have addressed the conundrum by developing an app (MediTrain) which delivers a meditation training that is bespoke to the individual. The app is designed to train concentration on the breath which improves focussed attention by titrating the target amounts of time to perform the exercise based on that individual’s previous performance; if the individual reached a particular level of concentration without distraction (e.g. 40s) then on the next trial, their target time would be increased while if they failed to do so, their target for the next trial would be decreased. Following participants over a 6 week regime of using the app, the researchers were able to track each individual’s trajectory. In addition, they measured certain aspects of brain functions which previous studies have shown to be highly implicated in classical work on focussed attention. Finally, they also evaluated how the breath-control transferred to other tasks of focussed attention and working memory tasks that require maintenance and manipulation of our current tasks. Overall, the results from the study were very positive showing that the 6 week training on MediTrain improved concentration compared to other available meditation apps and that these benefits transferred to other tasks; further, the differences were also apparent in brain-related changes.

“Overall, this is a very interesting study that was very well conducted. Two of the big strengths are that the app is ‘self-titrated’ in that each individual’s target for focussed-attention is based on their previous performance rather than a pre-defined group target. This tackles one of the major issues within cognitive psychology which is of individual differences whereby person A may already have quite good attention control before starting using the app while person B may have be very weak; by using the method designed into the app, this issue is strongly controlled meaning that each individual’s trajectory is being evaluated. The second big strength of the study is the double-blind design which meant that neither the participants or the researchers were aware of who was in which group, the MediTrain group or the control group. For the latter group, the researchers had gone to great lengths to identify other meditation apps that were generally thought to be useful. This strong experimental control meant that the analysis was based on a very fair comparison of two matched groups and within that, the change for each individual could also be tracked. The authors acknowledge that their results need to be replicated on larger groups and more importantly, a longer-term follow-up to see how long the benefits of training on the app last is needed; ultimately, meditation is a practice that one continues performing (much in the same way that one continues to do cardiovascular exercise to keep fit rather than stopping once a particular level is reached). Overall, however, the results are very promising and do suggest that MediTrain could be a potentially useful app for delivering ancient Hindu techniques through a very western form of technology.”

 

Dame Til Wykes, Vice Dean Psychology and Systems Sciences and Professor of Clinical Psychology and Rehabilitation, Institute of Psychiatry Psychology & Neuroscience, King’s College London (IoPPN), said:

“I approached this paper with much scepticism as app developers often make claims for benefits to mental health and cognition with no supporting evidence. This paper seems to buck this trend and offers a way for developers to substantiate the benefits in well controlled studies and is therefore a great example of what university research can offer.

“Although this was a well designed study, it was on a small sample of healthy young adults. It needs replication in a larger and more diverse sample where participants are not paid 600 dollars to take part. This would then mirror the real world.

“We also need to know whether the attention benefits persist and if they have any impact at all on everyday life. If the effect is transient so you need to keep on using the app this would clearly be an opportunity cost – you could be spending time on more useful things like a walk in the countryside and spending time with friends or family which have definite long term benefits.”

“Using the Internet has definite advantages but it also goes with some negatives. We know it can reduce our ability to remember, to sustain attention and potentially to navigate the world. We seem to have got into an episode of Black Mirror when the only solution to our reduced cognition through time on apps, games and satnav – is to design more games and apps to improve what we lost! This isn’t a Catch 22 situation because another option is we stop using things that produce harm and do things that provide benefit.”

 

* ‘Closed-loop digital meditation improves sustained attention in young adults’ by David Ziegler et al. was published in Nature Human Behaviour on Monday 3rd June.

 

Declared interests

Dr Ashok Jansari: No conflicts of interest

Prof Til Wykes: “I have co-created a software programme CIRCuiTS for cognitive remediation therapy for schizophrenia and have had grants from MRC and NIHR to develop and evaluate it”

 

 

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