Did you know that there are almost 100,000 health apps for smartphones? By 2017, they’ll be a $26 billion industry. When coupled with sensors, there are apps that track your eating habits, apps that remind you to sit up straight, and apps that (supposedly) make you smarter.
Brain games are especially popular, but there isn’t any evidence that they actually work. More importantly, some apps might be bad for your brain.
The near-constant stimulation of our app-driven age is a noisy departure from humanity’s past. Silence is golden, but it’s also important for mental and physical health. As author Zoe Schlanger, a practitioner of Buddhist meditation explains, “the best biohacking technique out there might be to simply shut it all down”. The discipline that she practices, Vipassana, is older than the latest smartphone app by about 2,500 years.
In the United States, Vipassana has been modified and secularized for programs in mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). The results are promising. For example, an MBSR program at a low-security prison in Washington State helped inmates cope with addictions and improve their overall mental health. By learning how to interrupt their cravings for alcohol and drugs, participants reshaped their thought processes.
Users of health apps also hope to “rewire” their brains, but wiring may be the wrong analogy – even in our electronic age. Over time, the human brain changes functionally and structurally in a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity. This molding or shaping isn’t instantaneous, but the results can be long-lasting. According to a recent study, meditators retain more gray matter in the hippocampus, a part of the brain linked to learning.
Regular meditation offers physical benefits, too. Zoe Schlanger’s evidence is anecdotal, but her experience at a Vipassana meditation center in Massachusetts captured her Manhattan doctor’s attention. Before her 10-day meditation retreat, Schlanger suffered from abnormal thyroid levels. Upon her return, Schlanger was re-tested. Her thyroid levels had dropped a full point, a result that requires six weeks of thyroid medication.
These days, there’s no shortage of smartphone apps. Yet the best choice for health may leave you unplugged instead of rewired. Have you tried mindfulness meditation?
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