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Meditators wanted: help us bring science to a 3000 year old practice

Dr. David Cox

You may have seen on our Facebook page recently an invitation to participate in a meditation research study. You’ll be seeing more of these soon as we launch an exciting series of in-house research studies aimed at understanding more about the effects of meditation, and how your experience of meditation changes over time.

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At Headspace, I’m immensely proud to lead a small team of talented scientists, with expertise in the fields of psychology, neuroscience and physiology, alongside my own expertise as a medical doctor. Together we’re creating new tools and using them to attempt to answer questions about meditation that science has struggled with before now. We never do research without explicitly inviting you to take part in a study, so there’s no need to worry that you’re being involved in research without your knowledge. But the exciting thing about having such a large and engaged user base is that we are able to do research studies with many more participants than has been traditionally possible. In science, the more data points you can get, the easier it is to make conclusions and be confident that they’re not just flukes. Until now, research in meditation has been hampered by the fact that you needed to get people into a room to teach them how to meditate. This meant that the research studies involved fairly small numbers of people, typically less than 100. As a result, any research conclusions have always come with the caveat that they’re based on a small “sample size” and so a larger-scale study should be done to confirm the findings. Sometimes the researchers can’t even say that there’s definitely any effect, not because there isn’t, but because the small sample size means the math doesn’t work to reach the threshold necessary to say ‘yes, there’s something there’. Another challenge for researchers is looking at the effects of meditation over long periods of time. It’s fairly simple to see whether meditating changes a person’s level of stress immediately before and after a meditation. But how long does this effect last? And what happens when someone meditates regularly for a year? But when you have millions of people meditating with an app, and you can ask them questions through social media and emails, suddenly some really interesting science becomes possible. We’ll be looking at things like how much meditation do you have to do for a given effect, and how does that change depending on who you are. We’ll also be looking for evidence of large-scale effects over time.

We’ll be using various methods to invite people to take part in research, like Facebook posts, tweets and emails. If you see a study you’d like to take part in, just follow the instructions. You can always change your mind or opt out, but it will be really great if you can spare a little time now and again to help further science’s understanding of these age-old practices of the mind. As we discover interesting findings, we’ll be sure to let you know about them. But I just wanted to introduce this exciting programme of work, and thank you all in advance for taking part.

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