Monalyn Gracia / Corbis

The Quantified Soul

The developers of mindfulness apps believe technology can make us happier and healthier

EDINBURGH, Scotland — Speaking at one of the hundreds of events held during this city’s annual International Science Festival, the app developer Rohan Gunatillake did something that on the face of it did not seem very scientific. He asked his audience to sing.

Armed with a worn bronze bowl, the kind of prop more often seen in a yoga class than at Europe’s largest gathering devoted to technology and innovation, he began by telling the crowd to pay attention.

“This is a meditation bell,” Gunatillake said. “I’m to going to ring it. As soon as you no longer hear it, you should sing the sound yourself.”    

He tapped the bowl’s side with a wooden pestle, filling the room with a high, clear tone. As instructed, the audience listened intently for its dissipation. One after another, as the last sound waves traveling from the bowl reached their ears, those who were willing raised their voices in a tentative echo of the faded chime.    

“Ahhhhh,” sang a woman in blue glasses.

“Ohhhhh,” a bearded man joined in.

“Mmmm,” came a hum nearby.

It was an unexpectedly poignant moment, the lecture hall resounding with as many variations on a single note as there were people who had gathered to listen rather than to be heard. Each voice carried a telltale tremble, expressing uncertainty and the fear of standing out from the crowd. Self-consciousness wafted through the room like an awkward breeze.

The so-called mindfulness movement aspires to trick the very gadgets that have stolen our attention into giving it back.
Ocean / Corbis

Self-consciousness, in fact, was the point. A Glasgow-based entrepreneur, Gunatillake led his audience in this interaction to introduce Mindfulness Games, his latest experiment in the use of playfulness, surprise and technology to inspire greater awareness of our bodies, our selves and the virtual environments where the body and the self often seem in danger of becoming disassociated. Through analog activities like the meditation bowl sing-along (which he calls Opposable Sounds) as well as digital products like his popular meditation app, Buddhify, Gunatillake has built a business on the premise that games and other leisurely pursuits can put life in greater focus.     

Gunatillake’s company, 21Awake, specializes in using lessons learned from gaming culture about the ways people interact with technology to “solve mindfulness problems.” While his approach is unique, in this intention he is — much as he made his audience members — a voice in a growing chorus.  

Perhaps the most unlikely use of communications technology is as a tool in the fight against distraction. At conferences promising not just wisdom but Wisdom 2.0, “wearables” designed to trigger spiritual thoughts, and a steady stream of meditation-, concentration- and well-being-improving apps, the so-called mindfulness movement aspires to trick the very gadgets that have stolen our attention into giving it back. 

Once a concept known mainly in Buddhist circles, mindfulness is now a booming global industry. Google offers workers at its Googleplex campus a class on mindfulness called Search Inside Yourself. General Mills makes conference rooms available for silent meditation. Aetna claims to be on a mission to bring “mindfulness benefits” to its employees and then to all America. Feeding the fad for mindfulness (and feeding off it), smaller companies and freelance gurus offer “corporate-based mindfulness training” available to businesses for onsite coaching, or to individuals through a $1,500 online course

If recent developments in Edinburgh are any indication, government may soon be getting in on the mindfulness act as well. Gunatillake’s Mindfulness Games are part of a slate of programs created in collaboration with the Scottish government in a first-of-its- kind effort to use technology to gauge well-being on both an individual and a national scale.

Project Ginsberg, as the larger initiative is called, is the brainchild of Geoff Huggins, head of the Scottish government's mental health division. Named for the Beat poet and sometime psychiatric patient Allen Ginsberg (and especially for his poem “Howl,” that great paean to seeing the “best minds of my generation destroyed by madness”), the project has appropriately lofty ambitions but is grounded in the more mundane sphere of data collection.

As Huggins explained shortly before Gunatillake took the stage in Edinburgh, Project Ginsberg was inspired in part by the kinds of personal data largely missed by recent efforts to monitor the  “Quantified Self.” Calorie intake, physical activity, even EEG readings, have become easily logged by products like Fitbit and Jawbone, but the markers of well-being that are more difficult to quantify tend to be felt intensely but rarely tracked. Doing so, the creators of the project believe, will help users connect patterns of behavior to the rise and fall of mood, allowing individuals to gain a better sense of the personal and professional pressures that contribute to their mental health. To be mindful, in other words, of the many factors that influence the mind.  

The frequency of Web searches for such questions as 'Why can’t I sleep?' 'Why do I feel so anxious?' and 'How can I feel better?' suggests that many reflexively turn to technology for answers to the most private concerns.

Speaking before a blown-up image of the project’s namesake, Huggins noted that technology has already provided a window into the well-being of people online. The frequency of Web searches for such questions as  “Why can’t I sleep?” “Why do I feel so anxious?” and “How can I feel better?” suggests that many reflexively turn to technology for answers to the most private concerns. 

“We need to find different solutions to the social problems we face,” Huggins said. A platform that “gives you control of your life by letting you understand the triggers to how you feel,” Ginsberg offers a way — first for the people of Scotland, and later perhaps for all of the United Kingdom — to chart mental states over time. By connecting the platform with various social media, users will also be able to see, for example, if tweeting 20 times a day makes them happier or brings them down.

Other recent initiatives have used technology to track awareness of personal well-being. The American research study SoulPulse, for example, catalogs the spiritual state of its users through a series of questions texted over 14 days (“Do you feel the presence of God right now?”), which intend not only to evoke such feelings but to collect data on when they are most likely felt, such as after a drink or two. Similarly, a group of psychologists at the University of Michigan sent text messages to study participants five times per day for two weeks to determine how Facebook use influences both day-to-day feelings of contentment and general satisfaction with life.

Yet Ginsberg is different in that it seeks not only to track feelings, but ultimately to improve them. As the project planners explain, its target market is “people who sometimes find it difficult to cope.” In a country with nationalized health care in which one in four experiences mental health problems every year, mindfulness might yet prove to be good public policy.   

Of course, in order for its benefits to be felt, the purveyors of mindfulness need not only to build the tools to make it accessible, but to develop a language that makes it attractive.

“Mindfulness continues to grow in popularity and profile, but it suffers from a problem: its voice,” Gunatillake says. “The voice of most mindfulness stuff is either Californian therapist or Church of England vicar.” By focusing on attractive design and user interface, his work seeks to remove the barriers that might deter those who would most benefit from the experience.  

His most successful effort yet can be seen in Buddhify, “the app that brings mindfulness to our busy city lives,” which was recently named the best meditation app by Outside magazine. Without a single Buddha image and entirely free of jargon, Buddhify removes meditation from the ersatz Eastern monastic aesthetic that dominates many approaches to mindfulness. It also undercuts the prevailing notion that the act of going online itself is necessarily a distraction to be limited, rationed or avoided outright.     

“The popular narrative of the current age is that our attention is fragmented, that it’s hard for people to concentrate,” Gunatillake says. Many blame technology for this, but he thinks it’s more complicated than that. Technology itself, after all, is value neutral. The real question, he suggests, is “What do we place at the center of our technologies? Right now, the experience of technology places advertising revenue at the center, which results in the need to draw users constantly from one experience to the next. What if you put something different at the center? What would it be like to create technologies that make well-being a design condition?”

According to Franklin and Marshall College’s John Lardas Modern, who is currently writing a book on religion, technology and “prayer machines” ranging from the Catholic rosary to Scientology’s e-meter, some elements of Gunatillake’s work and the efforts of Project Ginsberg can trace a lineage stretching back to the 19th century, when the use of machines to measure and alter spiritual states came into its own.  

“Buddhify is like having learned to perform a phrenology exam upon yourself, from the comforts of your own home,” Modern says, referring to the once popular practice of assessing the shape of the skull in order to gain insight on the function of the mind, or the soul, within.  

Mindfulness apps, Modern notes, “at some level seek to commodify this experience and the imagination of it. They take a potentially terrifying experience of being overwhelmed by technology and sell it back to you as pleasurable and vaguely ethical.”

As far as Gunatillake is concerned, “pleasurable” is a quality sorely missing from many meditation experiences. “Meditation is boring,” he says. But the methods used to gain the insights meditation offers, he argues, don’t need to be. 

As a veteran of many years learning mindfulness in traditional Buddhist settings, he speaks from experience. It was no accident that when he had the revelation that led to the creation of his meditation app, he was on a meditation retreat. He hiked out to a field to find a faint 3G signal in order to register the domain name with his phone, and then went back to join the others on their cushions. Spending time in such settings gave him insight not only into meditation, but into what might make learning mindfulness enjoyable. 

“What’s great about play is that it involves other people,” he says. “The pastiche we hear about learning the techniques of mindfulness is about the solo hero meditator on the mountaintop, but it’s actually all about community.”

Back at the Science Festival, the unlikely chorus Gunatillake brought together likely would have agreed. Though they had arrived expecting to hear a lecture, they ended the evening playing games. Bells chimed, voices rang out, laughter and conversation filled the room. Mindfulness never sounded so fun.


Support for this story was provided by the Social Science Research Council through funding by the John Templeton Foundation

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