QS and Mindfulness

Can you use technology to be more mindful?

This question was at the core of a wonderful presentation by Nancy Dougherty at the second annual Quantified Self Conference:

Nancy acknowledges at the start of her talk that QS is often thought to be mainly about technology. But not everybody sees it this way. Alex Carmichael, for instance, has described QS as “a very mindful community.”

In her talk, Nancy explains how she stumbled upon the idea of integrating mindfulness into her QS practice:

It was after a year of self-tracking that I stumbled upon self-mindfulness. Or, more accurately, it was after a year of failing miserably at self-tracking.

NancyD Mindfulness WeightWhen she took the time to look back at the tracking practice that was her most consistent – weight tracking –  she noticed that her weight was just a proxy for her emotional state and corresponding life events. This led her down an interesting path of tracking her emotions in an unusual way. In this earlier experiment, which involved taking placebos that she knew were placebos, and tracking her administration of the placebo by means a tiny edible sensor, Nancy saw clearly how tracking her emotions was changing them. The practice of “observing inward” with technology helped her notice, acknowledge and shape her emotional state.

She wanted more mindfulness. By mindfulness, Nancy means “the act of observing ourselves with openness, curiosity and acceptance.” Unfortunately, being mindful, even for the most adamant self-tracker, is difficult. “We live in a noisy world,” she says. “We have all sorts of distraction. There’s all sorts of places our brains can be.”


Inspired by a fascinating QS talk by George Lawton about observing his smiles, Nancy built her own smile detection and real-time feedback system. This consisted of two EMG sensors attached to her face in a way designed to pick up “true smiles,” which tend to crinkle the skin around the eyes. A true smile would light up a cascade of LEDs that she wore around her head and neck.

Nancy enjoyed using her smile detection and amplification system in the wild and learned a lot from it. At work, she was able to notice what had usually been an unconscious action: smiling when she spoke to another coworker. This changed the way she thought about these interactions. They weren’t just task-oriented. They were a chance to “express joy together.”


In essence, what Nancy did was to engage with and enhance the core QS principle of intense self-observation by creating a unique method to both track and create an opportunity for in-situ reflection. A smile occurs, lights blink, and she asks herself, “Why am I smiling?”

Thanks to Chloe Fan for the great photo!

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One Response to QS and Mindfulness

  1. Sean says:

    That is a great experiment that Nancy performed. Way better than a mood ring for sure.

    Question when talking about weight tracking was that weight loss tracking?


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