Do meditation apps work? It’s a question a lot of our newsletter readers ask me. As a meditation teacher specialising in traditional forms of meditation, I have to say: Meditation apps do not work like you think they do.
The supposed purpose of meditation apps is to replace traditional meditation and to make it easier to meditate. The idea is that you are given a vocal guide who leads you through guided meditations by instructing you of what to think about and what to focus on. For instance, you’ll be told to focus on your breath moving through your body, or to think about something relaxing like a beautiful beach. This type of meditation is the core element of apps like Calm and Headspace.
Millions of people have installed mindfulness applications with the hope of finding inner-peace or restoring mental health. Those users are drawn to the easy nature of meditation apps. And indeed, most meditation apps are very easy to start using. You simply choose a meditation technique and listen to the vocal guide. It’s so much easier than performing the proper, traditional styles of meditation, like the Buddhist meditations and methods used in yoga.
However, the simple fact of the matter is that meditation apps do not work like actual, proper meditations. Yes, they are relaxing and certainly could help you unwind after a hard day’s work. But they are not capable of bringing the same amount of benefits of proper meditations.
Not only this, it is quite simply impossible for guided meditations to replace proper practice.
How Meditation Apps Work, And Why They Don’t
Most meditation apps ask you to listen to someone’s voice while you meditate. Unfortunately, this is at odds with the actual science of meditation.
I’d like to explain why, and to do so I need to explain the principles of meditation.
The core principle of most meditation techniques is that we focus the mind 100% on a specific object, such a the breath.
Consider the Yogic meditation Dhyana. Dhyana meditation is a method in which we focus the mind 100% on an object (which could be the breath or another meditation object). This meditation works by having you focus on the object and become one with it. The basic idea is to cut out all distractions and concentrate 100% of your consciousness on the object.
Were you to do this using a meditation app, you would also be listening to the guide’s voice. And herein lies the problem.
It is not possible to focus 100% of your mind on a meditation object if you are also focusing on the voice of a guided meditation narrator. If you do this, your mind will be bouncing back and forth between the object of meditation and the instructor’s voice. One minute you’re listening to instruction, the next you’re meditating on your breath. You mind is bouncing between those two things (the guide and your breath). This is a) not proper meditation, and b) not healthy (because your mind is constantly jumping between two things).
Many meditations work in the same way. They work by focusing on an object and cutting out all else. And of course, you cannot do this if you are also listening to someone’s voice.
That’s why guided meditations cannot, even theoretically, replace proper meditation, because we cannot listen to someone’s voice while also focusing on something else. Bodhipaksa said something similar on WildMind about it being impossible to listen to meditation music while meditating at the same time. Yes, you can meditate on a sound, but you cannot listen to a sound while also meditating on something else. Sadly, this is precisely what most applications ask you to do. And that is why meditation apps do not work.
Science On The Effectiveness Of Meditation Apps
So, I’ve shared my opinion as a teacher on whether meditation apps work. But what does science say? Research is mixed.
On the one hand, you have a 2018 study that showed that the Headspace app is effective. Researchers tested Headspace on 70 adults. Before the study, adults answered questions regarding stress, irritability, and positive and negative feelings. Half the group then used Headspace for a month while the other half listened to Andy Puddicombe’s audio-based mindfulness and meditation book [note: Andy Puddicombe is the founder of Headspace]. Afterwards, the meditation group was feeling more positive and less stressed, and researchers state that the results showed that Headspace is effective.
Unfortunately, there a couple of glaring problems with this study. Firstly, the researchers were employed by Headspace, the very app they were testing, and so the research was inherently biased. And secondly, why the hell would they use a control group based on reading Andy Puddicombe’s book?! In trials like this, one group is tested against the other (the control group). So what this research is really saying is that Headspace worked better than its creator’s book. So what? Maybe Puddicombe is just a terrible author. Maybe the readers didn’t actually meditate properly. What, really, does this research prove? Very little.
So what about the real research, the unbiased stuff? Let’s ask Harvard.
Harvard says, “It’s hard to notice what’s going on inside or around you [in other words, it’s hard to be mindful] if you’re distracted by someone speaking, even if it is soothing speech, and some reviews of these apps point this out. Research also indicates that the self-directed, silent form of mindfulness practice is more effective than externally guided exercises.”
What really upsets me about this is that Headspace founder Andy Puddicombe is a former Zen monk who Is well-trained in Zen meditation techniques. Surely he must know that listening to someone’s voice while breathing is not the same as proper meditation. The fact that he has never outright admitted this makes me question things.
Worse, according to research by Queenston University, the vast majority of so-called “Mindfulness apps” do not actually teach mindfulness at all. The researchers state that “Only 4% of the 700 apps identified in our search provided mindfulness training and education. Though many apps claimed to be mindfulness apps, most of them were not.” And as for the scientific-backing? Researchers tell us, “Little evidence is available on the efficacy of the apps in developing mindfulness.”
Mindfulness apps are not the answer for those seeking to use meditation properly. If you are genuinely interested in getting started with mindfulness, it is imperative to learn the proper techniques and to perform them correctly rather than simply using a vocal guide.