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Zev Schuman-Olivier

Want To Start Meditating? There's An App For That.

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What does it look like when you create and sell your own product? We spoke to Susan Piver, director of the Open Heart Project, an online meditation guide.
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Zev Schuman-Olivier

Meditation is an ancient practice dating back thousands of years. In its original form, it requires nothing more than a place to sit.

But meditation and mindfulness have gained newfound popularity in recent years. And, as with everything else in our lives, technology seems to be creeping in — from meditation apps to experiments with brain-stimulating electronic signals.

Experts gathered in Boston at a recent symposium at Harvard University to discuss the possibilities and ramifications of technology-assisted meditation.

“There definitely was a lot of excitement about the different areas — the potential for increasing access to meditation and mindfulness for certain populations who couldn't normally access it,” said Zev Schuman-Olivier, the director of the Center for Mindfulness and Compassion at the Cambridge Health Alliance and the moderator of the symposium.

“There were also a lot of people that brought up certain types of concerns … that people might try to seek out certain types of positive experiences instead of the actual goal, which is to be able to accept the nature of your experience, however it is.”

Some smartphone applications provided a guided meditation, while other apps remind the user to take time out to meditate. Another app reads a person’s vital signs and tells them when they are stressed. The applications include Headspace, Koru, and Calm.

Schuman-Olivier ran a study in which a control group was given instructions to download the most popular mindfulness smartphone apps. The experimental group was given an eight-week in-person mindfulness course.

Schuman-Olivier said the in-person course performed as expected, with dramatic decreases in anxiety, depression, and stress. But what surprised him was how many people were able to establish a mindfulness practice after using just the smartphone apps.

“And in many cases people that ended up using those devices the most were the ones that wanted to be in the next round of groups after they completed the study,” he said.

Schuman-Olivier told Living Lab Radio that he thinks the apps are a positive thing if people are able to transfer what they’ve learned to daily life.

For example, “when they're stuck in traffic driving and need to be able to calm themselves to avoid road rage,” he said.

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