A mindfulness app

16 January 2018

Interview with 

Tom Mole, Cambridge University

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Mindfulness is an ancient process, but can technology help us to get it right? Chris Smith hear from Tom Mole, Cambridge University psychiatrist who has designed a mindfulness app....

Tom - I think there is a growing recognition of mindfulness. I came from the background that a lot of people were getting into mindfulness, but there was this assumption that you can’t get feedback on or measure mindfulness. So if you were to go out and search for mindfulness app and to download it on their phone, most of the apps would just give audio instruction, and it might give a script such as: close your eyes and, for example, focus on the breath.

The problem with this is that if you imagine closing your eyes and doing an exercise for ten minutes without any feedback, what you’re really doing is you’re impairing the mind’s ability to learn from that process because you go out thinking did I do it right? I’m not sure if I was concentrated enough and then you might negatively appraise that and go well, I can’t meditate. Meditation is not for me or maybe I couldn’t stop thinking about something I said to someone else, going to the past or the future.

So what we’ve done in the Mindz app, which gives the first meditation feedback within the hour, is we’ve focused on playing a short bell sound to people when they are focused and when they are mindful in the moment.

Chris - How does it work; how does it know that?

Tom - We developed new technology where clever motion sensor algorithms in the phone can detect how you’re breathing and when you’re breathing by the user simply putting their phone on their abdomen, lying back in a chair somewhere comfortable - their sofa or a chair in the room. Then, as they leave their phone on their abdomen, that phone will slightly tilt and will oscillate almost in a sinusoidal pattern and that basically tells an algorithm of how you’re breathing.  Then we just tell the user: just tap the screen whenever you breathe in.

This is all very geeky, but we’ll compare the gyroscope signal to when the user taps to work out whether it’s a good fit. Whether they’re tapping just when they breathe in or whether they’re distracted and dreaming of a Big Mac or their sleep hygiene or something like that, and they miss a tap.

Chris - Because that’s what happens to me when I try it. When people say obsess about your breathing, really focus on it and relax, and my mind is racing all the time. And the minute I get relaxed it immediately creates all this mental space which I then instantly fill with other rubbish and distractions and instantly I am not concentrating on relaxing. So something like what you're saying which gives you something to focus on helps you to exclude all those distractions?

Tom - It’s a concentration aid, and I think what you’ve described beautifully is what we call the default mode of the brain. If I sit you in a room or anywhere in life and I tell you not to do anything in particular, the brain will automatically start mind wandering. This happens about 50 to 60% of every hour of every waking day of your life. This tool is a way of helping you to become mindful by reinforcing that attention to the breathe and giving you feedback by playing short bells to when you’re concentrated. That this really fruitful skill that isn’t always easy - a bit like going to the gym or getting sleep hygiene, it’s quite a challenging habit. It gives you support in that.

Chris - Does it work?

Tom - Yes. The short answer but try it out. Mindfulness is built on an experiential evidence base as well as randomised control trials. But, in mindfulness people always say give it a go and see for yourself how you feel when you pay attention to your breath for ten minutes. I always encourage people to be the judge of that.

Chris - Are you getting the data back from users and is that becoming part of your PhD?

Tom - Yes. Hopefully the long term plan is we’ll probably have the largest dataset in the world. We’ve already got at least 15,000 mindful breaths taken on it. We hope it will continue to grow as well.

Chris - Isn’t that wonderful that you help the world to relax and then, in the course of them chilling out, they help you to get your PhD?

Tom - Fingers crossed!

Chris - And for people to be able to take part can you just tell them what to do? Where they go and get a copy of the app and how they can help Tom get his PhD?

Tom - Yeah. It’s freely available to all. You can go to mindz.com and download it. It’s coming soon for android but if you've got an iPhone you can download it right away for free. Sign up and find somewhere comfortable, lie back and take a few mindful breaths.

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