Yet Another “Mindful” App

We are in an age where it is so easy to create and distribute a mobile app that there is almost no barrier to putting out any idea you might have. This is a great tribute to the hard work of the software and systems engineers and designers who have created this infrastructure and made it so easy to use. Believe me, I know how hard it was to create reasonably easy to build with software.

One side effect has been an explosion of apps, far beyond what any reasonable market would demand. When it is easy to create an app, and you let anyone do it, you get a lot of copy cats, a lot of pointless nonsense, and plenty of bad ideas

For one thing, all you need is an idea, however small, and you can build an app. There is no need for any kind of research or reality check at all. Forget market research, scientific validation, or even basic legal due diligence, just do it.

It seems to me that in this upwelling of app building, we are recapitulating earlier history. First, of course, all your favorite applications were recreated (multiple times) as apps. Then developers moved to slap a Inappropriate Touch Screen interface onto every darn thing.

And now, developers are mining new age pop psychology, producing apps to do “abundance” and “mindfulness”. In fact, “mindfulness” is a flavor of the month this fall.  (And, as Natasha Lomas points out TechCrunch, there are certain to be a raft of “mindfulness” VR experiences coming soon.)

So we have buzz this week about Pause, from ustwo studio. Pause is a simple app that invites you to chase an ‘ink blot’ with your thumb. This task requires concentration and is intended to “relieve stress”. A ten minute session is supposed to not only take you away from interruptions but make you calmer and rested. It is suggested that this is like Tai Chi, only just your thumb moves. (It is also compared to a Lava Lamp—a notably useless device!)

OK, we know that there is abundant reason to think that attention to a mindless thumb game on a mobile device is not good for you nor calming (e.g., Greenfield’s Mind Change). Furthermore, you would think that just turning off the device and taking a walk would achieve the same or better results. In other words, I really need some evidence that this app actually works as claimed.

Examining the company web page, they say,

“SCIENTIFICALLY VALIDATED

PAUSE has been tested using EEG and is proven to produce a calmer state of mind and a lower mental workload.”

Excellent! I’ll get the papers and look at the evidence.

Oops. There are no papers, nor any indication of what “scientifically validated” means.

Digging around, I found an explanation in an interview in FastCompany:

“Eventually, Peng turned to Dr. Chi Thanh Vi, Human-Computer Interaction Researcher at the University of Sussex, to validate the developer’s findings through (more) controlled EEG testing. What he found was, unbelievably, that Pause not only relaxed someone’s mind more than playing Ustwo’s popular, quietly atmospheric game, Monument Valley, but more than simply relaxing with your eyes closed on the couch.”

This is not much to go on, and is certainly weak science and questionable “validation”.

Just to be clear: they seem to hang their claims on unspecified “EEG testing” which claims to measure “state of mind”. There is no indication that the alleged state of mind was related to subjective feelings of calmness, let alone any behavioral or physiological indications of less stress. We have no ides what the EEG “testing” really was, so who knows what this actually means?

Note, too, that the specific claim is that it “relaxed someone’s mind more than” a calming game or sitting with eyes closed. That is an intriguing phrase. Does this mean that the sample was one person? Does this mean that the change is greater, though they all might be at the same (high) level of stress? It’s hard to be sure.

In any case, this “validation” seems to be a one shot study, with no examination of long term effectiveness, contextual effects, or individual differences.  Assuming the short term changes in EEG are real, does that have any detectable impact on feelings or behavior in the future, and over time?

We also have no idea of who this sample was. Whether these EEG patterns indicate successful stress relief for everyone is a different story.

Overall, this product makes hazy claims that seem highly unlikely on their face based on previous studies. In fact, the company admits that they are setting conventional wisdom on its head, by claiming that a simple app can product “a calmer state of mind and a lower mental workload”, which is why they felt the need for “validation”.

The bottom line is that this product should not claim scientific validation, and, frankly, I think it should be withdrawn until it is proven safe and effective.

However.

While it seems unlikely that mobile apps with tiny screens and minimal interaction could be a tool that would foster “mindfulness” or any kind of relaxation response, I have to keep an open mind.

As Greenfield points out in her book “Mind Change”, interaction with digital devices can and are producing changes in brain and physiology. At the very least, heavy users will surely habituate to their devices, which might feel like addiction or it might feel like a comfortable security blanket.

So, I could imagine that digital natives who use their phone all the time, to the point where it is an important part of their life and extension of their body could find something like Pause to be calming. It might even be calming for all I know. Sort of like digital worry beads.

Indeed, for someone who is “addicted” to their phone, turning it off and closing your eyes will only create images and thoughts of the missing device—not necessarily relaxing. But focusing on chasing an ink blot on the phone, while interruptions are suspended, might actually be soothing, or at least more soothing than closing your eyes and trying not to think about your phone.

It is also possible that the app is useful for people who are experienced meditators, or who have other training, such as martial arts or extreme sports.  This wouldn’t necessarily mean that the app works for other people.

So, this app might actually work for some people, and it is quite possible that the test sample was from this group. We have no way to know.

So I’d love to see broader study of this app, to investigate this hypothesis.

We also need to validate the intended effects: assuming the EEG effects are replicated at lest for some people, do they actually feel subjectively calmer? How long do the effects last? (If the effect of a ten minute session fades in minutes, then that is a serious practical limit, no?)

We also need some careful comparison conditions. Here is a list of conditions to test.

  • Sit quietly with eyes closed and relax, no phone. (The “Turn it off!” condition.)
  • Sit quietly, use worry beads or some other physical prop.
  • Sit quietly, twiddle your thumb similar to app, but with no phone.
  • Hold phone turned off, instructions to twiddle thumb similar to app, but with no app.
  • Phone with blank screen, instructions to twiddle thumb similar to app.
  • Simple solitaire game.
  • Ten minutes of prayer (e.g., a sample of believers who regularly pray)

Obviously, we would want a larger sample of people, with at least some idea of relevan background, such as experience meditating, hours of regular use of mobile devices, and so on.

And, by golly, we’d like to see the study published for review and replication.

If you actually want to do these studies and need help, call me.


 

Oh-one more thing. We need an Android version. I don’t have and will not every have an iPhone.  How can I even try it out?

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