New Technologies Can Help Combat Digital Distraction, Calm Minds

Neuroscientists are reformulating their understanding of the brain. Recent studies attest to the deeply positive effects of meditation on the physical structure of the brain, directly resulting in increased neuroplasticity, the brain's ability to reorganize neural connections to recover from various inborn or incurred traumas, and to develop new skills and abilities. Understanding neuroplasticity is vital to coping with and healing from various forms of mental suffering.

New advances in technology seem to be promising leads for neurologists, as they work to harness technology for the human cause. However, conditions such as "email apnea" are being acknowledged, indicating that technology decreases the brain's neuroplasticity and hinders mindfulness.

"Speak to people, especially heavy users of social media. Most will report feeling drained, stressed...People very often report feeling overwhelmed," said Yaakov Lehman, Chief Executive Integrator at mindfulness teaching collective Wisdom Tribe. "The nervous system is on edge from being constantly connected (to technology). There are links to depression, higher anxiety, insomnia...these studies are well known."

In light of this troubling trend, there is new interest in meditation, a fundamentally low-tech activity, as a remedy to the harsh effects of the Digital Age. Lehman is enthusiastic about meditation's potential as an antidote to technology overuse. "Daily mindfulness practice can negate the harmful effects technology can have on the nervous system and produce a deep calm," he says.

Thanks to a few visionaries in the field, we are entering the Mindful Digital Age. A new sector of technology is emerging, with an aim to enhance meditation and aid the process of neuroplasticity. Dana Zelicha, founder of OWBA and professor for Organizational Well Being at IDC Herzliya, predicts that many global organizations will soon begin to embrace mindfulness-related technologies to combat employees' stress and disengagement, as well as enhance their focus, effectiveness, creativity and innovation.

Intendu, featured in the first ever Wisdom 2.0 Connect event, held this past February in Israel, is a unique technology that aims to rehabilitate those with brain dysfunction. The program is available for both clinical and private use, and focuses on strengthening cognitive processing and physical coordination, developing personality traits such as persistence and assertiveness. According to their website, "Intendu's interdisciplinary team combines experts from the domains of neuroscience, cognitive training, occupational therapy, healthcare optimization, computer science and gaming."

The system functions with a camera that captures the subject's movement and features it on a screen, in any one of the selected scenarios, which have been carefully developed to simulate real-life situations. The subject is thus guided into developing skills for appropriate responses in life outside the home or clinic.

Imagine Clarity, brainchild of Buddhist monk and scientist Matthieu Ricard, is a simpler app where users can access his written works and those of others in the mindfulness world, on how to stay motivated and inspired in one's meditative practices. Imagine Clarity's site says that they "deliver training modules and creative applications for individuals, businesses, organizations and teams to train the mind through caring mindfulness."

A large part of the developing technology in this field uses neurofeedback, explained by EEG Education and Research Inc as "a technique in which we train the brain to help improve its ability to regulate all bodily functions and to take care of itself." This is otherwise known as electroencephalographic (EEG) biofeedback, which can be done through anything from state-of-the-art equipment and electrodes, to a simple combination of a wearable headset and an app.

Myndlift, a Tel Aviv-based app founded by Israeli Arab Aziz Kaddan, is a technology that addresses ADHD/ADD. Kaddan's goal is to phase out pharmaceutical treatments, which are known to have disruptive side effects on the body like fatigue and appetite loss. This technology features a combination of an EEG headset and an app with various focus-related games that only work while the subject is concentrating. Aziz was one of the youngest speakers at February's Wisdom 2.0 Connect event.

A similar app, Muse, focuses on easing newcomers into meditative practices by providing real-time feedback. The user dons the headpiece and headphones, connected to a smartphone with the Muse app. As the user meditates, calm music or ocean waves play. The sensors on the headpiece measure brain activity, and when the user's attention starts drifts, the calm music intensifies, or the ocean waves strengthen. This should recall the user's attention to the exercise, and as focus returns, the audio gets calmer and quieter. Frequent users of this app have affectionately begun to refer to their Muse sessions as "Musing."

EEG technology has been around since the 1980s as an alternative treatment for ADD, ADHD, traumas and addictions. However, the extremely high cost, cumbersome equipment, and the occasional necessity of receiving treatments in a specialized clinic, made this technology highly inaccessible. These apps widen and personalize neurofeedback use. Though leading scientists, researchers, and personalities in the mindfulness movement remain highly skeptical of the efficacy of these apps, this is the very first step in the direction of reconciling, and even marrying, mindfulness and technology.

The mindfulness movement has long discouraged excessive exposure to the internet and distracting gadgets. EEG apps are proof that the Digital Age has made an irreversible impact on modern life. What's more, their developers are boldly making the statement that learning how to use technology mindfully, and to increase mindfulness, is a vision of the new future.

Dina Green contributed to this article. 

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