A brief history of Mindfulness
Mindfulness, as we know it today was introduced to the West by Jon Kabat Zinn in 1979 as part of his “Mindfulness Stress Reduction Program”, a secularized version of mindfulness that he adapted for outpatients in a stress reduction clinic. (Kabat-Zinn, J., 2003, p.148). Kabat-Zinn had himself trained under Buddhist monks and returned to the West, adapting the teachings he learned to apply them within his clinical psychology practise. (Jon Kabat-Zinn, n.d.)
It was so successful that Mindfulness is now an integrated part of clinical psychology as “mindfulness-based interventions” (MBI), to treat common mental disorders such as anxiety disorders (Evans, S. et al, 2008, Strauss, C., et al, 2014, Hofmann, S. and Gómez, A., 2017, Liu, X., et al, 2021), depression (Shapero, B., et al, 2018, Strauss, C., et al, 2014), eating disorders (O’Reilly, G. A., et al, 2015, Dunne, J., 2018 ) and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (Key, B. L., et al 2017) and relapse prevention for addictive behaviours (Bowen, S., 2014).
But this secularised Mindfulness has not remained in the clinical settings and was commercialised. Mindfulness is now a billion dollar industry.
The mindfulness/meditation app market is currently over saturated, a sector that is expected to grow by 41% over the next six years. Due to their accessibility, both in terms of ease of access, use and affordability, wellness apps are more likely to be used by Gen Z as alternative forms to treat their ailing mental health issues. (Tailor Made Reports, 2022)
These apps also tend to be passive and limited in their approach, many are the same product rebranded. This can lead to apps that are quit just as soon as they are downloaded as users feel the lack of learning “how” to meditate. (Lowrey, A, 2021)
This is where Virtual Reality (VR) and Human-Computer-Interaction can change the game of Mindfulness, quite literally.
Mindfulness in the 21st Century
VR is unique as it has a sense of immersion and presence unlike any other media currently available. One of the ways this can be further enhanced is through adding interactions to further solidify a person’s sense of presence or immersion in the experience. As Virtual Reality is a multimedia experience we can employ different media together to further enhance the experience, perhaps to aid the sense of presence, or immersion, or to help achieve the goal of what it is we are trying to do – for example, if we wish to make a game about relaxation, we can create a calm virtual world, and employ relaxing sounds, create relaxing animations, etc.
However, VR is also known as a gaming device and learning through games is very useful. For example, when we play video games, we are constantly learning new skills – but we don’t recognise this as learning new skills, despite the new behaviours we learn and perform each time we defeat a new boss. (TEDx Talks, 2018)
Similarly, researchers found that when players played games such as Call of Duty, a high-stress game where a second’s delay in decision-making can mean life or death, these players were learning skills that benefitted their lives outside of the game – such as decision-making in their real life. (Boyle, E., et al, 2011)
Perhaps, in the words of Mark Rober, if we can reframe the experience of mindfulness, we can help to teach it (or rather others may be able to learn it better). Perhaps by adding elements of a game, such as a rewards system, or a “score” we can reinforce learning what is “good” or “bad”, for mindfulness.
In order for us to add elements of gaming to mindfulness, first, we need to understand exactly what mindfulness is.
The consensus, in keeping with its Buddhist roots, is that mindfulness is “present at the moment”, “non-judgment” and “awareness of the present moment”.
With this in mind, it could be considered that the “win” state is “focused” and the “lose” state is “distracted”.
To emphasize this, we could add game elements such as a progress bar, and feedback sounds to illustrate to the user that “focus” is “good” and “distract” is “bad”, and in this way, users might gain a better understanding of how to be mindful, through this interactive gamified process along with the visual feedback.
One of the most common things you’ll hear in any mindfulness meditations is the idea that our thoughts are something transient and/or ephemeral, in mindfulness meditations, thoughts are often likened to things like clouds, or moving trains. These imaginary scenarios of our thoughts are to emphasize the idea that our thoughts are transient too, and that we can observe them, don’t get attached or judge them, or be distracted by them.
Since we are doing this in virtual reality we can visually create these “distraction” objects that can represent our thoughts in the world, providing this visual stimulus, and then pair this process up with guided mindfulness meditations that play in the experience to help anchor the user in the present moment, have them acknowledge their thoughts but keep them present at the moment and prompt them to focus on the “good”.
This style of learning mindfulness might be more universal compared to traditional methods, with an estimated 2.5 billion people playing video games in 2016 (Georgiev, D., 2022), compared to the estimated 200-500 million globally who meditate (Mindworks, n.d.).
Guided Meditation VR
Mindfulness was adapted from its ancient Buddhist roots to be integrated into psychotherapy. Today, it is recognised as an effective way to cope with stress and alleviate the symptoms of common mental disorders. The results speak for themselves and they have helped mindfulness secure its place as a multibillion dollar industry, helping corporations, places of education, and even individuals deal with stress in a non-invasive, and useful way.
Although the wellness app market is expected to grow by 41%, many of the current apps struggle to teach how to meditate or teach mindfulness, and have problems retaining customers. Smartphone technologies hold the potential for considerable growth due to their accessibility and ease of access, however the mindfulness smartphone apps lack the engagement or customer retention.
If we investigate how to make mindfulness more engaging, perhaps by looking at immersive content that is interactive, we can find a solution to the current problems of the Wellness app market.
This is one of the things we are currently researching at The VR Hive, to investigate if this is a useful way to help teach mindfulness and to promote relaxation.
If you would be interested in learning more, and if you’d like to get your hands on our latest development, why not get in touch to become a Beta tester. We’re always on the lookout for individuals with a passion for innovation and disruptive technologies.
Jon Kabat-Zinn. (n.d.). Wikipedia. Retrieved June 24, 2022, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jon_Kabat-Zinn
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Key, B. L., Rowa, K., Bieling, P., McCabe, R., & Pawluk, E. J. (2017). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy as an augmentation treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 24(5), 1109–1120. https://doi.org/10.1002/CPP.2076
Liu, X., Yi, P., Ma, L., Liu, W., Deng, W., Yang, X., Liang, M., Luo, J., Li, N., & Li, X. (2021). Mindfulness-based interventions for social anxiety disorder: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychiatry Research, 300. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2021.113935
Lowrey, A. (2021). Do Meditation Apps Work? – The Atlantic. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2021/06/do-meditation-apps-work/619046/
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O’Reilly, G. A., Cook, L., Spruijt-Metz, D., & Black, D. S. (2014). Mindfulness-based interventions for obesity-related eating behaviours: a literature review. Obesity Reviews : An Official Journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity, 15(6), 453–461. https://doi.org/10.1111/OBR.12156
Shapero, B. G. , Greenberg, J., Pedrelli, P., de Jong, M., & Desbordes, G. (2018). Mindfulness-Based Interventions in Psychiatry. Focus (Am Psychiatr Publ). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5870875/
Strauss, C., Cavanagh, K., Oliver, A., & Pettman, D. (2014). Mindfulness-based interventions for people diagnosed with a current episode of an anxiety or depressive disorder: a meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. PloS One, 9(4). https://doi.org/10.1371/JOURNAL.PONE.0096110
Tailor Made Reports. (2022). Mindfulness Meditation Apps Market | Scope, Size, Share, Forecast Report 2029. TMR Research. https://www.tmrresearch.com/mindfulness-meditation-apps-market
TEDx Talks. (2018). The Super Mario Effect – Tricking Your Brain into Learning More | Mark Rober | TEDxPenn – YouTube. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9vJRopau0g0
World Health Organisation. (2022). COVID-19 pandemic triggers 25% increase in prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide. https://www.who.int/news/item/02-03-2022-covid-19-pandemic-triggers-25-increase-in-prevalence-of-anxiety-and-depression-worldwide
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