Smartphone apps are handy for collecting data as well as for delivering intervention content. This opens the possibility of collecting objective data from large samples of participants without tying up limited research laboratory time and budgets.
Axelsen et al. [BMC Psychology] tested the effect of smartphone app-based mindfulness training against app-based music listening on attention and cognitive working memory in a large sample of business employees. A novelty of this study was the use of smartphone-based cognitive games to assess changes in participant attention and working memory.
The researchers used social media ads to recruit 623 Danish business employees to participate in a stress-reduction study. Participants were randomly assigned to a mindfulness, music-listening, or wait-list control condition. After excluding drop-outs and participants with incomplete data, data were analyzed from a sample of 459 participants (average age = 39 years; 50% male).
Drop-out and noncompletion rates were similar for the mindfulness (32%) and music (29%) groups, and lower for the wait-list controls (14%).
The mindfulness group listened to audio lessons on the Headspace apps basics program for 10 minutes daily for 30 days. The music group listened to music selections from four playlists (“focus,” “binaural beats,” “piano, “Low-Fi”) for 10 minutes daily for 30 days.
Prior studies show that music listening can improve sustained attention and reduce mental fatigue, while listening to binaural beats in the beta wave range can improve mood and vigilance.
Participants completed baseline and post-intervention measures using a perceived stress scale and two smartphone games related to cognitive performance. The “Go Sushi Go” game served as a measure sustained attention, that is, the ability to maintain focus on a task over time. Whenever participants saw an image of fresh sushi, they were to tap the screen, and whenever they saw a piece of spoiled sushi, they were to do nothing.
The “Animal Parade” game served as a measure of working memory, that is, holding previously observed information in mind and then recalling that information. As images of animals floated by one at a time, participants tapped the screen whenever an image was the exact same they saw two animals before that image. Participants earned points for correct answers that they could then use to access new “worlds” within the app.
Results showed both the mindfulness (d = 0.67) and the music (d = 0.60) groups experienced decreased perceived stress, while the control group did not (η2p = 0.05). The mindfulness (d = -0.8) and music (d = -0.3) groups showed improved sustained attention scores on the “Go Sushi Go” game but the control group did not (η2p = 0.07); score improvement in the mindfulness group was significantly greater than that of the music and control groups.
Only the mindfulness group (d = 0.95) showed improved working memory scores on “Animal Parade” game (η2p=0.17).
The study shows that mindfulness training or music app use for 10 minutes daily reduces aggregate group levels of perceived stress relative to a waitlist control. The mindfulness app also improves performance scores related to sustained attention and working memory better than an active music-listening control.
The study demonstrates the potential of using smartphones to deliver interventions as well as to assess outcomes, allowing researchers to obtain adequate sample sizes with less inconvenience to participants and researchers.
Axelsen, J. L., Meline, J. S. J., Staiano, W., & Kirk, U. (2022). Mindfulness and music interventions in the workplace: Assessment of sustained attention and working memory using a crowdsourcing approach. BMC Psychology, 10(1), 108.
Link to study