Virtual Reality Enhances Online Mindfulness Training
By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“I’ve done meditation before and I just zone out to what they are saying…because your mind’s working to picture something it then is working to daydream as well…Whereas, when it was just there in front of you, I think that it took a bit of pressure off of thinking, and you could be in the present.” – Study Participant
Over the last several decades, research and anecdotal experiences have accumulated an impressive evidential case that the development of mindfulness has positive benefits for the individual’s mental, physical, and spiritual life. Mindfulness appears to be beneficial both for healthy people and for people suffering from a myriad of illnesses. It appears to be beneficial across ages, from children to the elderly. And it appears to be beneficial across genders, personalities, race, and ethnicity. The breadth and depth of benefits is unprecedented.
There is no other treatment or practice that has been shown to come anyway near the range of mindfulness’ positive benefits. With impacts so great it is important to know how to promote the development of mindfulness even in individuals who dislike or avoid the discipline of practice. Technology has recently been applied to training in mindfulness. Indeed, mindfulness training carried out completely on-line has been shown to be effective for as number of conditions. There is evidence that virtual reality may be used to enhance the therapeutic effectiveness of mindfulness training. There is a need, however, to explore whether virtual reality enhances the development of mindfulness?
In today’s Research News article “Understanding How Virtual Reality Can Support Mindfulness Practice: Mixed Methods Study.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7113800/), Seabrook and colleagues recruited healthy adults online and trained them in mindfulness with a 15-minute virtual reality experience that included viewing forest scenes with a guided meditation voiceover. They were measured before and after training for mindfulness, anxiety, depression, perceived stress, and positive and negative emotions. They were also asked to evaluate the virtual reality with questionnaires on simulator sickness and general systems presence and were asked to engage in a semi-structured interview to assess the VR.
They found that after training there were significant increases in mindfulness and positive emotions. They also reported a strong sense of presence and very little simulator sickness during the VR. They rated it as very engaging and that it helped them focus on the present moment and practice mindfulness.
The study did not incorporate a comparison, control, condition. So, conclusions must be tempered with the knowledge that the results might reflect participant expectations or demand characteristics. It also had only a brief single session of training. So, it is unclear if virtual reality may be useful in sustained mindfulness training. Nevertheless, the results suggest that virtual reality may be a useful add on to mindfulness training to improve the development of mindfulness.
So, virtual reality enhances online mindfulness training.
“If I were sitting in that same environment in reality I would be thinking…are there other people there… is the car there. But knowing that this environment was virtual, I was able to simply enjoy it.” -– Study Participant
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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Seabrook, E., Kelly, R., Foley, F., Theiler, S., Thomas, N., Wadley, G., & Nedeljkovic, M. (2020). Understanding How Virtual Reality Can Support Mindfulness Practice: Mixed Methods Study. Journal of medical Internet research, 22(3), e16106. https://doi.org/10.2196/16106
Regular mindfulness practice has been demonstrated to be beneficial for mental health, but mindfulness can be challenging to adopt, with environmental and personal distractors often cited as challenges. Virtual reality (VR) may address these challenges by providing an immersive environment for practicing mindfulness and by supporting the user to orient attention to the present moment within a tailored virtual setting. However, there is currently a limited understanding of the ways in which VR can support or hinder mindfulness practice. Such an understanding is required to design effective VR apps while ensuring that VR-supported mindfulness is acceptable to end users.
This study aimed to explore how VR can support mindfulness practice and to understand user experience issues that may affect the acceptability and efficacy of VR mindfulness for users in the general population.
A sample of 37 participants from the general population trialed a VR mindfulness app in a controlled laboratory setting. The VR app presented users with an omnidirectional video of a peaceful forest environment with a guided mindfulness voiceover that was delivered by a male narrator. Scores on the State Mindfulness Scale, Simulator Sickness Questionnaire, and single-item measures of positive and negative emotion and arousal were measured pre- and post-VR for all participants. Qualitative feedback was collected through interviews with a subset of 19 participants. The interviews sought to understand the user experience of mindfulness practice in VR.
State mindfulness (P<.001; Cohen d=1.80) and positive affect (P=.006; r=.45) significantly increased after using the VR mindfulness app. No notable changes in negative emotion, subjective arousal, or symptoms of simulator sickness were observed across the sample. Participants described the user experience as relaxing, calming, and peaceful. Participants suggested that the use of VR helped them to focus on the present moment by using visual and auditory elements of VR as attentional anchors. The sense of presence in the virtual environment (VE) was identified by participants as being helpful to practicing mindfulness. Interruptions to presence acted as distractors. Some uncomfortable experiences were discussed, primarily in relation to video fidelity and the weight of the VR headset, although these were infrequent and minor.
This study suggests that an appropriately designed VR app can support mindfulness practice by enhancing state mindfulness and inducing positive affect. VR may help address the challenges of practicing mindfulness by creating a sense of presence in a tailored VE; by allowing users to attend to visual and auditory anchors of their choice; and by reducing the scope of the content in users’ mind-wandering. VR has the unique capability to combine guided mindfulness practice with tailored VEs that lend themselves to support individuals to focus attention on the present moment.