I don’t want to mess with your meditation practice. Not today, not ever. And if you haven’t joined the countless who have discovered meditation’s gifts, now may be the time to start—because we know that it’s doing something good for us. Those who have a regular practice (myself included) tend to feel happier, calmer, and less likely to lose it when the cold winds blow (which inevitably, they do). And ultimately, that’s all that the Buddha ever wanted for humanity—a little loving kindness, a little more compassion, a little less torturing ourselves (and each other) with our criticism and judgy nonsense.
But before you start investing in classes, spendy cushions, or trendy in-home meditation space, Steven Leonard, a mind-body personal trainer who runs a meditation workshop at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health with Dartmouth College neuroscientist Andrew Heusser, says you might want to begin with defining your intention. “There are countless reasons why people might meditate, so someone developing a practice should ask themselves: What are my goals? What am I looking to cultivate? Relaxation? Focus? Spirituality? Am I looking for the nature of reality?”
Once you understand your goals, tracking your practice may help you focus more quickly, and there is a wealth of high-tech meditation aids available—think phone apps and EEG-sensing headbands to $35,000 isolation pods—all promising to launch your journey into higher consciousness and well-being. In fact, the meditation industry itself is estimated at $1.1 billion in the United States alone. (Not exactly what the Buddha had intended.) You can now spend mucho bucks on gadgets that claim to clear out the junk in your brain in a fraction of the time it takes to attain enlightenment through more traditional practices (several lifetimes for some). But do any of these devices actually deliver?
To find out, we turned to the science.
Jumping right into meditation technology, there’s Provata Virtual Reality (“Utopia is just a click away”!), a program that offers a one-two-three punch of high-tech mindfulness aids: a proprietary virtual reality experience (read: instant beach vacation), exclusive guided practices, and analysis of your biofeedback information (referred to as “lifestyle management programs”). Provata’s software is free (although you’ll pay for premium content inside the app) and works via third-party devices such as VR glasses, Fitbit, Jawbone, and the Apple Watch to create an immersive practice wherever you are and deliver helpful feedback so that you can develop better habits and watch your health improve in real time.
Does VR help with meditation? Studies have shown that environmental conditions can have a profound effect on one’s stress levels: One research study published last year in the journal PLOS One reported that reduced environmental stimulation can have a calming effect on debilitatingly anxious people. This research supports the idea that transporting oneself to a relaxing setting, even if it’s just a simulation, can reduce stress and encourage focus. That being said, those on their way to enlightenment may scoff at VR because the very idea of developing a practice is about learning to focus the mind in any setting.
And there’s a creepier side: Provata is trying to entice employers and insurers to buy your data in the interest of providing better, ahem, care. Like all forward-thinking tech companies, Provata wants your data so it can sell it to someone else. So saith the Facebook: You don’t have to opt in. But is that really true?
For eons, meditators have worried that they’re not doing it right, that maybe they’re wasting their time. I’d venture to guess that even Buddhist monks fret about this from time to time. And certainly the act of meditating does force you to confront the fact that you’re just sitting there, when you could be working on your never-ending to-do list. (That tub isn’t going to caulk itself!) So it’s only natural for us humans to want some kind of evidence that good stuff is happening even when we’re not actively doing.
Hence, the appeal of Muse. It’s a $200 headband outfitted with electrodes that purportedly measure your various brain waves during meditation practice and, in response, gives you aural prompts when it senses your mind going astray. Different activities and states of mind produce different brain waves: delta (deep sleep); theta (REM sleep, daydreaming, and deep meditation); alpha (relaxed and awake); beta (active), and gamma (hyperalert). Muse tells users when their alpha and theta levels are elevated—in theory, a good thing. Animated chirping birds and graphs charting each Muse-directed practice on your smartphone will assure you that you did a good job, or not.
In a way, Muse gamifies your practice—when you reach a deep mind state, you’ll hear the birds chirping; when your mind rolls back into the gutter of daily life, you’ll hear thunder rumbling. In fact, people who use it talk about accumulating Muse birds like gold stars in a first grade classroom.
But the neuroscientists we spoke with warn that unlike Muse, scientific EEGs are pretty sophisticated devices with dozens of sensors for all over the head, and actually reading the output (and brainwaves) is both an art and a science. Further, the muscles in your face and head produce a lot of electrical “noise” that must be filtered out. They question whether Muse’s dearth of electrodes and its proprietary algorithm can really do the trick. “Neurofeedback outcomes on consumer-grade devices should be interpreted with caution,” says yoga and guided meditation instructor Rebecca Acabchuk, PhD, a neuroscience researcher at the University of Connecticut who is using Muse (among other tools) to study the effects of brief daily meditation on student stress. Variables such as calibration inconsistencies and individual performance anxiety make the data difficult to interpret, she says.
When I asked Remko van Lutterveld—an investigator in the Department of Epidemiology
at Brown University’s School of Public Health whose research focuses on the effects of meditation on the brain—whether something like Muse has scientific underpinnings, he wrote, “Neurofeedback-augmented meditation practice is currently not an evidence-based method. It may work, but at the moment we don’t know.”
Like VR, the Somadome entices the determined (and affluent) meditator with the promise of a full escape. It’s a $35,000 padded chair that closes up on you like a sumptuous genie’s bottle, offering the feeling of being in your own private cocoon. Interior LEDs and binaural beats (tones imagined in the brain when it’s presented with two different frequencies at the same time) add a sci-fi touch and may help lull practitioners into a meditative state. Such an escape pod certainly could help those seeking solace from work or home life.
Researchers who study the effects of environment on our stress levels, including professor Gary Evans at Cornell’s College of Human Ecology, have found that
a critical component to our mental well-being is balancing our need for privacy with our need for social contact. Crowded, noisy conditions can increase our stress levels, which in turn can hamper our ability to focus when we need to. Evans has observed that “architectural depth”—the level of privacy achieved in a given environment via doors and walls—can mitigate these environmental stressors.
“The ability to find some degree of privacy seems to be the key to minimizing psychological distress in chronically crowded living conditions,” reports the academic journal Human Ecology Forum. “And the space providing the privacy need not be especially large, as long as it adequately separates the individual from the rest of the household.” The Somadome can’t shut out the whole world the way a floatation tank filled with warm, amniotic-like saline can; it’s more like a tiny extra room for one that offers an additional modicum of privacy to those who really can’t escape their environment. But to a certain extent, it satisfies Evans’s observations that sometimes we need some kind of physical barrier between us and other human beings. Maybe Somadome is best for someone wealthy enough to live in a good-sized Manhattan condo, but not rich enough to afford a meditation room. Position this puppy somewhere in a corner and retreat when needed. I just hide under the covers, but you do what works, right?
See also How to Meditate Daily
Taking it down a notch, you might want to consider Spire, a neat little device you can clip onto your belt that measures your breath through the expansion and contraction of your torso. It then sends data to your smartphone throughout the day and vibrates when it senses that you’re losing your grip. The founder of the company, Neema Moraveji, PhD, took leave of his academic position at Stanford University to bring Spire to market when his Calming Technology Lab’s research supported deep breathing’s influence on mind and body health. When you breathe more deeply, your body experiences physiological changes, he found. “Respiration is the only autonomic function you have direct control over,” Spire’s website notes. Moraveji explains, “First, [breathing] changes the carbon dioxide level in the bloodstream. This is important because the amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for emotions like fear) is very sensitive to carbon dioxide (detected as pH). When you take that deep breath, your blood becomes less acidic, assuring your amygdala that you are, indeed, not at threat of drowning and that all is well. Second, it lengthens the exhale, lifting the gas pedal on the brain. During exhale, the gates blocking the vagus nerve, the longest cranial nerve, are lifted. This signifies to the brain that the coast is clear to ‘rest and digest.’ Finally, consciously taking a breath is the simplest action you can take to bring a wandering, anxious mind to the present moment. This is the key to understanding why concentration techniques start with focus on the breath.”
The Buddha also had a lot to say about breath; The Discourse on the Full Awareness of Breathing is one of the most important sutras. Said Buddha: “The full awareness of breathing, if developed and practiced continuously, will be rewarding and bring great advantages.”
What are those advantages? Science now has some answers. A literature survey conducted by the University of North Texas Health Center concluded that yogic breathing can have impressive physiological effects: “A growing body of evidence suggests that yogic breathing”—controlled breaths, both short and long—“contribute to improved cognitive performance, better tissue perfusion, lower blood pressure, glucose metabolism, and an increased immune system. It is well documented that these physiological changes are associated with optimal human performance.” Optimal? Sign us up.
Spire doesn’t get you doing yogic breathing per se, but it’s a step in the right direction, reminding you to breathe more deeply in traffic, at the grocery store, when your kid is having an epic meltdown, or when you’re trying to unwind in bed with a day’s worth of caffeine still coursing through your veins—it’s a mindfulness tool that reinforces the effects of your meditation practice throughout the day.
And finally, for those of us who don’t want to spend a dime but still want to get in the game, there are smartphone apps like Headspace and Calm. Downloaded by millions of peace-seeking hopefuls, these apps offer a slew of guided meditations tailored for every conceivable need: stress, sleeplessness, attention and memory deficits, and cognitive functioning. The meditations usually have a backing track of babbling brooks, birds, rain, or waves—sounds meant to lull us back to our primitive, ostensibly stress-free, state. The narrations might call you to create a place in your mind, such as a beach, then remind you of your breathing, and guide you through a body scan to get you in touch with your physical self. The breadth of the offerings is staggering in both scope and time length, and all apps track your practice so you can look back after a year and feel like you’ve accomplished something.
But do they work? Researchers and professional meditation guides alike say that whatever gets you meditating is a good thing. “These devices may be useful for some things that a person is looking for,” says Steven Leonard, the mind-body trainer who works with Dartmouth scientists: “It’s a tool, like a hammer. If it’s an app that gets you into it, then it’s an app you shall use.” However, Leonard warns that our dependency on technology is in part to blame for creating so much anxiety in the first place. “It’s my desire to not need those things,” he says.
Indeed, the one-size-fits-all remotely guided meditations offered through these apps have not been widely studied. That said, James Stahl, section chief of general internal medicine at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, who has examined the mind-body connection, says that live guided meditations have been studied and “can be quite effective for the right person.” But, he notes, “in live guided meditations, the instructor can monitor the subject’s response to their guidance and adjust wording and pace, accordingly.” No such thing in a canned, app-guided meditation session.
So we’re going into this technology-assisted meditation thing with a world of hope and a healthy dose of, if not outright, skepticism—and an understanding that the science may not be there yet to justify the expense (or download). The important thing to remember, as meditation teacher Steven Leonard noted earlier, is that when it comes to meditation, intention is the whole ballgame. The why will help inform the how.
His point is that if you know what you’re looking for, you’ll find the right tool. “People are multidimensional beings: physiological, emotional, spiritual,” he says. Which is why having a meditation practice, however you do it, may lead you to the ocean of possibilities that exist in the world. “The clearer a person is about why they’re meditating, the clearer they can be about their own success with it.”