Oh, Apple!

Apple had a keynote yesterday. I did not pay attention — I usually wait for products to hit the market, and then wait a year or two for prices to come down before caring much about the latest gadget — but they did something embarrassing. They made a big deal about an app called “Breathe”. It’s a mindfulness app, and they plugged it with a great big quote on the screen.


DEEPAK BULLSHITTING CHOPRA? Apple thinks a Chopraesque silly app for the Apple Watch is worth highlighting in one of their high hype twice-yearly keynotes? Well, that tells me something: that I don’t care what else was announced. It must have been mighty feeble to leave room for Chopra.

And then, it’s a mindfulness app, which has clearly become the pseudoscience fad of the year.

The value of Chopra’s own ideas and recommendations are dubious—to the point that some of his Tweets have been deemed indistinguishable from bullshit. And according to some experts, mindfulness apps are just as questionable. “Science behind mindfulness apps shows most don’t help or work,” tweeted Harvard psychiatrist John Torous, who is also the editor-in-chief of the JMIR Mental Health journal. Torous later told Fast Company that these types of apps are increasingly being investigated by experts. “These companies are very bold in their claims, and very quiet when things don’t work,” he said. “It is premature to say the mindfulness app space is well-validated at this time.”

This is actually a problem with most “mental health” apps, which a study in Nature earlier this year determined can sometimes give improper advice that makes people’s conditions worse. A 2015 study by Institute of Health & Biomedical Innovation at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia looked at 606 mindfulness apps and determined that only 23 actually taught mindfulness techniques. The rest were just timers or reminders—most of them told users to stop what they were doing and breathe.

Yeah, if you’re in the market for an app that will remind you to breathe, maybe you need this thing.

Otherwise, I haven’t seen much to distinguish mindfulness from mindlessness.


  1. bojac6 says

    Apple knows who butters their bread. If they weren’t tied into new agey bullshit, they’d have to charge a competitive price

  2. Matrim says

    In absolute fairness, that particular Chopra quote isn’t bad advice. Using physiological controls like focusing on deep breathing and reducing heart rate can help you manage things like anxiety disorders and the like. Still, not happy to see him promoted at all.

  3. says

    @#1, bojac6:

    A “competitive” price meaning, I presume, one like the PC makers who are all gradually going out of business by undercutting each other — see, for example, Dell and Gateway — except for the ones actually based in China where they pay all their employees a pittance and pass the savings on to you?

  4. bojac6 says

    @3 Vicar – if the higher price of an iPhone was passed on to the factory workers who build the things or because they aren’t made in China, I’d concede the point. Instead they charge more and keep it while paying the workers very little

  5. pita says

    Maybe it’s time for the FTC to check in on these apps. I saw on their blog they got a settlement out of that “Lumosity” company for advertising that their app could help people who were brain damaged, maybe they can do the same for these “mindfulness” alarms with grandiose claims. I know, the FTC would rather walk over flaming coals than pick a fight with quackery, but if they’re willing to go after one, they should go after more.

  6. hotspurphd says

    Chopra is a quack but mindfulness is not quackery. And the apps may be mostly useless however, a number studies show that Mindfullness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), taught and practiced all over the country can be quite helpful. I have been using one of their techniques, a Mindfullness body scan, since 2004 to deal with chronic, and at times debilitating back pain. Since I started doing it daily for 45 minutes about 6 months ago my pain has been reduced by about 80%. It works better for me than opiod pain meds. I know pz has looked at the studies and was not impressed and that anecdotes are not data, but I know that it works for me. Within 10 minutes of starting the exercise my pain usually disappears completely and regular practice has definite beneficial effects. Also sensors attached to the painful spots on my back show decreased muscle tension at the MOMENT that I focus on those spots. This evidence is good enough for me. Perhaps there is more in those studies than pz thinks. Or perhaps more and better studies are needed.

  7. Ed Seedhouse says

    Meditating is fine if that’s what you enjoy doing. So is a good nap. Meditating won’t make you “better” but it may make you slightly calmer. A good nap will probably do that and also make you more alert when you wake up.

    Well, if we want to learn how we can be somewhat calmer I guess it makes sense to practice being calm for awhile once in awhile. But “calmer” is not always “better”. There are times when the last thing you need to be is calm.

  8. David Rice says

    There may be more to the presentation than pz seems to indicate. I observed more women participating onstage than ever before (been watching and/or attending since 1970) and a major presentation for Music made by a black woman.
    article with more info

  9. hotspurphd says

    8. Ed Seedhouse, do you have any evidence to support your statements? My experience is that when I fall asleep while meditating I don’t feel as well as when I stay awake and do the work-meditation is work. There is also experimental evidence that a good nap is not the same as meditating. Herbert Benson a Harvard cardiologist in his studies of meditators found that experienced meditatiors demonstrated a state “more profound than deep sleep” after 20 minutes of med. twice daily (“The Relaxation Response 1975). Benson’s studies in the 50 years since then have supported the beneficial effects of med. While his n’s may be small and his claims too great-e.g., I don’t know how his claim that meditation is healing stands up-it’s clear to me from studies and personal experience that it can work pain reduction (see my post #7.).It makes sense I guess that less stress might lead to healing but I don’t know what the evidence is for that.
    Also there is a big difference between being calm and being mindful. One involves attention and the doesn’t necessarily. I wonder if anyone here has tried meditation. It seems that it’s seen here as just some new age thing. It not and its not anything like the common-sense stuff that Seedhouse says. I refer you to the work by John Kabat-Zinn, a psychologist at UMass.

  10. F.O. says

    Studying mindfulness was a significant help in dealing with depression.

    Re Deepak Chopra, he’s a perfect match for the feel-good religious feeling Apple inspires.

  11. says

    I agree with you hotspurphd…chopra (and probably most of these apps) is worthless…but meditation is not. Dismissing it as no different than a nap and as able to achieve nothing other than ‘calm’ is hard to justify in the face of mounting research to the contrary. PZ didn’t find your particular study convincing, but I wonder what he has to say about the meta-analysis of 78 fMRI studies of meditation Fox et. al. published just this month in Neuroscience and biobehavioral reveiws. They found “reliably dissociable patterns of brain activation and deactivation for four common styles of meditation (focused attention, mantra recitation, open monitoring, and compassion/loving-kindness)” which differences were “congruent with the psychological and behavioral aims of each practice” overall.
    Within the (often religious) communities typically practicing meditation, ‘mindfulness’ is a common bit of jargon for what is essentially developing particular mental skills and psychological qualities by actively practicing and attempting to develop them. I’m an atheist and scientist who reads PZ cuz I think he’s usually right but I think calling mindfulness “pseudoscience fad of the year” is unfairly dismissive of a real phenomeon, and “I haven’t seen much to distinguish mindfulness from mindlessness” says more about what he’s seen than it does about mindfulness.

  12. Ed Seedhouse says

    hotspurphd@8 “Ed Seedhouse, do you have any evidence to support your statements? My experience is that when I fall asleep while meditating I don’t feel as well as when I stay awake and do the work-meditation is work.”

    You ask me for evidence and then tell an anecdote to support your opinion? Since when are anecdotes evidence?

    I gave an opinion, but I made no claims. You demand evidence for my *opinions* but don’t give any evidence for your *claims*. Hmm…

    As for improving oneself, how is the “self” that needs improving qualified to know what would be an improvement? I can become a better chess player by studying chess but I don’t study chess to become a better person. Meditation might improve certain skills, but that doesn’t mean it makes you a better person. Saying that you study meditation to become a better person is tantamount to saying that meditation isn’t worth doing just for itself, or at least so it seems to me.

  13. hotspurphd says

    I gave an anecdote and a reference-Herbert Benson–look again.
    I see I wasn’t clear when I referred to healing. I meant what I belief Benson meant, that meditation leads to less stress, which leads to better healing of the body. I said nothing about beng a better person, that’s in your head. And I suspect that meditation can lead to being a better person to the extent that one doing things mindfully instead of reactively. I don’t know if anyone has claimed evidence for that. But in general I would venture to guess that doing things in a thoughtful considered way might often lead to better actions. Sorry to ruffle your feathers.

  14. chigau (違う) says

    I learned to do things mindfully by training in karate.
    And by doing archaeological field work.
    And first-aid courses.

  15. hotspurphd says

    Jacobbasson, thanks for that. Well said. First time anyone has agreed with me here on this I think. Pz commented on fmriand studies and changes in the brain recently and said he thought the authors were seeing results that weren’t there. I’d like his comments on the study you mention.
    Here is another from the same journal in 2014 with the highlights:
    Is meditation associated with altered brain structure? A systematic review and meta-analysis of morphometric neuroimaging in meditation practitioners
    Kieran C.R. FoxSavannah NijeboerMatthew L. DixonJames L. FlomanMelissa EllamilSamuel P. RumakPeter SedlmeierKalina ChristoffShow more

    Many studies have examined ‘morphometric’ neuroimaging of meditation practitioners.

    We conduct a meta-analysis of these gray and white matter differences in meditators.

    We find consistent differences in prefrontal cortex and body awareness regions.

    Global mean effect size is ‘moderate’ (Cohen’s d = 0.46; r = .19).

    Results suggest consistent and medium-sized brain structure differences.


  16. hotspurphd says

    Just because Depak Chopa says something doesn’t mean it’s not true, though it s like to be. Same for Andrew Weil.

  17. andyo says


    Acupuncture also works for some kinds of pain, including back pain, for many people. It seems to me that “mindfulness”, just like acupuncture and other such things, lends itself perfectly for certain placebo responses.

    But what does “leads to better healing of the body” even mean? A disease? A cut in your knee?

  18. hotspurphd says

    “Acupuncture also works for some kinds of pain, including back pain, for many people. It seems to me that “mindfulness”, just like acupuncture and other such things, lends itself perfectly for certain placebo responses.”
    Perhaps. I don’t know what the research shows . But I’ll take a good placebo response any day. Especially if it’s as good as atretment response.

    Healing of the body means I suppose what it usually means- recovery from a disease, healing of a cut would be included. And made worse perhaps by stress.

  19. says

    @#6, bojac6

    @3 Vicar – if the higher price of an iPhone was passed on to the factory workers who build the things or because they aren’t made in China, I’d concede the point. Instead they charge more and keep it while paying the workers very little

    You may have missed it, but Apple actually does supplement the pay of the workers who assemble their stuff, unlike all the PC and Android phone makers who also use Foxconn but are never mentioned in news stories*. Assembling Apple stuff is considered a plum assignment at Foxconn (the company which actually employs the people) because the pay is noticeably higher. (Most of the Foxconn assembly workers are apparently younger people trying to save up money to start a family.)

    Unfortunately, the thing which causes the problems — and, despite the press fixation on Apple, Foxconn’s other factories have some similar problems — isn’t the pay but the working conditions, and although Apple is one of the few companies who has actually tried to pressure Foxconn into doing anything about it, Foxconn is so profitable and ubiquitous because they treat their workers horribly to get the job done cheaply. But you can relax a little, because Foxconn is trying to replace as many as possible of those workers with automation. Of course, that means fewer jobs for people who are desperate for money, but if it’s good enough to happen in the U.S. it should be good enough to happen in China, right?

    But hey, don’t let mere facts get in the way of your prejudices.

    *When there’s a ubiquitous problem in the American tech sector, for some reason Apple is the company which gets the blame. Remember when there was actually a Congressional investigation because it was discovered that iPhones were keeping a list of locations where the phone had been? Al Franken was one of the people hollering about it. That kind of fizzled out, because it turned out the list wasn’t actually used for anything; it was just a cache which was never being cleared because some programmer decided the data should be written down without ever bothering to set it up for eventual erasure. But although it received almost no media attention whatsoever, Google’s Android OS was also keeping a list of locations — but unlike iPhones, Android phones were periodically contacting Google to upload the list, with a user ID attached to make sure Google knew where you had been. While Apple was being grilled about their mistake, Google quietly issued a patch to Android which stopped it from phoning home with the data, but they were never hauled over the coals publicly for doing it in the first place. That’s kind of par for the course with Apple.

  20. andyo says

    The last I heard, acupuncture actually hadn’t shown to out-perform a placebo.

    That’s what I meant, it works insofar as a placebo can work. Placebos work for some kinds of pain. (Not that I’m advocating for placebos.)

  21. khms says

    #24 andyo:

    The last I heard, acupuncture actually hadn’t shown to out-perform a placebo.

    That’s what I meant, it works insofar as a placebo can work. Placebos work for some kinds of pain. (Not that I’m advocating for placebos.)

    Just call it “psychological pain relief”.

  22. methuseus says

    @The Vicar

    I did not realize that Apple was subsidizing their manufacture. i would like to know if the workers are actually getting the subsidy, and I would like to know if the subsidy is equivalent to their markup, which I doubt. That doesn’t change that, yes, paying more to Foxconn is a good thing.

    Also, I can always be reminded to take a deep breath once in a while. I just would rather it not be Chopra doing it.

  23. F.O. says

    @andyo: How do you even distinguish placebo from mindfulness?
    Do you realize that placebo is a very real and very desirable outcome?
    Mindfulness is probably one of the most accessible way to trigger placebo.

    There is nothing magical about learning to discipline one’s thoughts.
    Is it that unreasonable that it is useful for dealing with rumination and negative thoughts in depressed people?
    Really, it’s that straightforward.
    Depression gives you bad thoughts -> learn to be aware of your thoughts -> learn to discipline your thoughts -> depression becomes a bit less crippling.
    Radical, I know.
    The only reason I can fathom for PZ’s stubborn refusal to see this is that I assume he never suffered of depression.

    I’m not the greatest reader of scientific articles, but this meta-study seems legit and concludes that mindfulness has a moderate but robust positive effect http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20350028
    Happy to be be told that the article’s worthless, but with real arguments please.

  24. parrothead says

    @ 27 FO

    Do you realize that placebo is a very real and very desirable outcome?

    And usually very temporary, not actually treating the cause of the symptoms. You trick the brain into releasing endorphin. It expects to feel better after the placebo is given so it releases happy drugs which make it feel better. This potentially can be useful for pain management, but not as a cure.

  25. Sastra says

    Using the term ‘placebo’ dismissively becomes problematic when the actual end goal is ‘to be pleased.’ If you believe you are in less pain, more relaxed, or happier in general then it’s kind of hard for someone else to argue that no, you’re not. It’s a subjective evaluation, and highly personal.

    As I understand it, both mindfulness and meditation involve real work and benefits which last. Anything coming out of Chopra however is likely to be glib and superficial, invoking magic. It’s not a bad quote in itself, similar to “don’t forget to stop and smell the roses” — but the source makes it suspect anyway. An app which reminds people to slow down might I suppose be useful for those people who are 1.) always in a tearing hurry and 2.) constantly hooked up to technology.

    What Apple needs to create is an app which tells users to “put the goddam cell phone down and drive/look around/interact with people for a goddam change.” That might be a poor marketing idea, though.

  26. parrothead says

    @30 Sastra
    That feeling you get when the light turns green and the driver of the car in front of you is looking down, not noticing the change.

  27. janiceintoronto says

    Golly PZ. If you keep saying things like that you’re gonna hurt his feelings!

  28. Ed Seedhouse says

    “I gave an anecdote and a reference-Herbert Benson–look again.”

    Yeah, well I read that book back in the 1980s (was that the decade? Memory fades..) or so and didn’t find it convincing then. A popular book is not scientific evidence either, sorry. The studies he did and then popularized didn’t, it seemed to me, provide any real evidence for his claims. And IIRR it’s been pretty thoroughly debunked in the pages of one of the Skeptic magazines.

    If you look deep enough you will so far as I am aware always find some religion or other behind all the mediation claims (and of course the so called “martial arts”. In the case of Benson he was I believe basically a Maharishi (TM) follower who went heretic. Or at least that’s how I remember it. I could be wrong. Other religions behind similar claims are Tibetan Buddhism and Japanese Zen.

    I have a sneaking admiration for Zen, because they admit up front that they have nothing to teach and no philosophical position to promulgate, and then of course this frank admission is never believed and they are never short of customers who want to become “enlightened” and so the Zen teachers (who teach nothing) make a decent living. The hypocrisy is still there, of course, but they are at least a bit more up front about it.

  29. says

    I watched the whole thing, and I kid you not, I thought of you when they came to that part! To give more complete context, he actually said something like the benefits of yoga, etc. have been known about in other parts of the world for some time, but now “even doctors” in the US are touting them, and Chopra was their example of a credible doctor! I was slack-jawed. “Woo woo!” I shouted at the TV since I wasn’t sure you were watching and doing the same…

  30. actias says

    I use deep breathing exercises in tandem with medication to combat anxiety. It helps, but of course that’s not what Chopra was talking about.

  31. hotspurphd says

    Herbert Benson was/is a cardiologist at harvard and has published research on meditation since 1975, his most recent book about three years ago. He had 190 publications in medical journals. He is not just the author of a popular book.

  32. F.O. says

    @parrothead: The meta study I linked contradicts your claims.
    Also, you are wrong, the placebo effect is a lot more complicated than what you describe.

    Further, please source your claims.
    Show me *science*, not your opinions.

  33. rrhain says

    @27 and @38, F.O.
    “Do you realize that placebo is a very real and very desirable outcome?”

    Actually, do you realize that there is no such thing as placebo?

    In order to measure a placebo, you need to have not two groups but rather three: 1) A group that receives real treatment. 2) A group that receives placebo treatment. 3) A group that gets no treatment of any kind.

    The body has repair mechanisms. It is not enough to merely claim that placebo can have an effect when literally doing nothing can also result in positive changes. It is uncommon for studies to use all three groups, but there have been some.

    And it turns out that the only difference between placebo and doing absolutely nothing is that those undergoing placebo show a slightly lower incidence of reporting pain. Since pain has a high subjective component, it is not surprising to find that the medical equivalent of mommy kissing your boo-boo would have some positive result in pain.

    “Is the Placebo Powerless? — An Analysis of Clinical Trials Comparing Placebo with No Treatment”
    Asbjørn Hróbjartsson, M.D., and Peter C. Gøtzsche, M.D.
    N Engl J Med 2001; 344:1594-1602May 24, 2001DOI: 10.1056/NEJM200105243442106

    We found little evidence in general that placebos had powerful clinical effects. Although placebos had no significant effects on objective or binary outcomes, they had possible small benefits in studies with continuous subjective outcomes and for the treatment of pain. Outside the setting of clinical trials, there is no justification for the use of placebos.

    What would be the mechanism by which placebo would work? Again, I easily understand that there are psychological aspects to pain and thus managing one’s psychological state would have some effect. We’ve all seen how if you can distract a child from the idea of getting an injection, they are much more tolerant of the experience compared to when they are anxious and full of dread.

    What specifically are you referring to?

  34. blbt5 says

    Depressing to have learned that my own friendly neighborhood UCSD has granted a faculty position to this soporific twit.

  35. F.O. says

    @rrhain: the scientific consensus /seems/ to be that placebo is real and needs to be accounted for.
    Still, the article you link is interesting.
    I’m trying to find out more, but TBH I’m just getting confused.

    This article cites the 2001 paper, and concludes that placebo effects are not *clinically* significant:
    I assume here that “clinical” is used in opposition to “self-reported”.

    This article concludes that placebo have “similar effect sizes” to treatments:
    which probably is just saying that treatments are not effective?