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Marieke van Vugt

New perspectives on technology-facilitated meditation

The world of science and technology develops really quickly. Recently I read a very intriguing paper that pushes the boundaries of what we believe about meditation training. In that paper, they investigated the feasibility of delivering a mind-body intervention in a virtual world. Mindfulness-based stress reduction is a very frequently-used treatment for a wide range of disorders. What is a common question amongst those scientists studying contemplative practice is to what extent the efficacy of this intervention is in fact caused by social group effects; the fact that people attend weekly meetings, feel part of a supportive group, meet with a charismatic teacher.

The interesting thing that this paper offered was that it used a virtual world to deliver a mind-body intervention. In this virtual world, known as Second Life, people represent themselves as an avatar and through that interact with others. In this study, participants could go to a virtual teaching area where they could do yoga and meditation and similar exercises. They could do this from the convenience of their own home, and they were completely anonymous. Nevertheless, the study showed that those people that participated showed a decrease in self-reported psychological distress. Nevertheless, the study has many limitations: there is no control group, so it is hard to know whether this was not just a placebo effect. Importantly, of course only people who have an affinity with Second Life participated.

Nevertheless, this study raises some interesting questions: is it actually possible to follow a course in mindfulness in a virtual environment? How crucial is the contact with other people? Should What Meditation Really Is go on Second Life? What do you think?