Study: App for mindful meditation had the same effect as sham meditation app

By Laura Lovett
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When stress levels are high, turning to an app for guided meditation might not be all that effective, according to a recent small study published in BMC Psychology.

Researchers found no significant difference in mindfulness, dispositions or critical thinking scores when comparing a group of participants that received mindfulness meditation training through an app to a group that went that went through a "sham" version of meditation training delivered through the same app. That being said, over the course of the double-blind study, researchers observed a significant increase in mindfulness dispositions and critical thinking scores in both the mindfulness meditation and sham meditation groups. 

“Our results show that, for most outcomes, there were significant changes from baseline to follow-up but none which can be specifically attributed to the practice of mindfulness,” the authors of the study wrote. “Looking at dispositional mindfulness, one can see that participants from both conditions endorsed each facet to a greater extent at the end of the intervention. This could be due to insensitivity of the measure employed, a genuine small effect of the active-control condition on dispositional mindfulness or simply that low intensity guided practice of mindfulness meditation is no more effective in training the skills of mindfulness than the sham meditation condition we employed.”

The study, which looked specifically at college students, was initially made up of 91 participants, but after attrition dropped to a follow-up sample size of 71 participants. The study was made up of National University of Ireland Galway students who were between the ages of 18 and 65. The median age was just under 21, and there were more than twice as many women than men in the study. 

Participants in both the intervention group and the control group logged into sessions on a smartphone or mobile application over a 6 week period. 

Over the course of the study, participants in the intervention group used the app Headspace and were asked to complete 30 meditation sessions whenever it was best for them. Each session lasted 10 minutes. 

The experimental group had an initial session that focused on introducing the concepts of mindfulness, practical tips for mindfulness meditation, and guided body-scan meditation, according to the study. In the other group, participants were given instructions about guided breathing and were invited to sit with their eyes closed. According to the study, the exercises were called meditation but the participants weren’t guided on how to control their awareness of their body or breath. 

Researchers collected data at baseline a week before the intervention and then again a week after the intervention ended. 

In the discussion, researchers noted that one of the weaknesses in the study was that the only real difference between the experimental and the active-control conditions was that one got specific instructions to do with the building mindfulness skills in guided mindfulness meditations and the other didn’t. But in this, study Headspace only provided one guided sham mediation recording, introducing a issue of content variability. In the future, researchers said there could be an active control condition with a similar delivery but that is not meditation, such as audiobooks. 

“No evidence was found to suggest that engaging in guided mindfulness practice for 6 weeks, using the online intervention method applied in this study, improves critical thinking performance,” the authors of the study wrote. “While further research is warranted, claims regarding the benefits of mindfulness practice for critical thinking should be tempered until evidence of these supposed benefits are presented.”