Tracking Breathing To Control My Focus
Shamay Agaron has been using a breath measurement instrument, the Spire, to understand more about his patterns of focus.
And so, the question I kind of asked myself, so I study focus at Princeton and I’ve always kind of wanted to study in a more naturalistic setting instead of pure curiosity. And so, the question I ask myself is, how can focus be more intuitive and assessable to study in everyday life?
And so, it’s a hard question because focus is this thing that’s hard to pin down. Not everyone has the same definition of it, and so there are a lot of tools to measure in. so it was tough to make the call, but I chose to use this device that measures breathing rate. It turns out there is a lot of research done that there are correlations between breathing rate and cognitive states using deep learning models.
Just to kind of reiterate that, breathing rate somehow can tell you something about your cognitive state. It’s kind of unintuitive in my mind.
So there’s this device called Spire. I’m actually wearing this right now, this little pumice stone little thingy, you clip onto your waistband and it’s actually pretty comfortable despite how it looks. And it kind of just tracks your breathing rate all the time.
So, he is merely trying to look candid studying, and it’s a kind of case study that I took was this summer I was studying for the MCAT, which for people that have done that it’s a long and arduous process. Many students you know study for 200, 400 hours, so it takes a lot of focus and discipline to get through it. So I thought it was a great case study for kind of this question on focus.
And just to take you through the UI of what Spire is like, there’s an app that comes with it. The one on the left is kind of a main screen that kind of shows you your breathing rate in real-time. Then the middle screen is kind of your daily run down I guess. And on the right, you can actually go into more detail on moment by moment kind of what you’re looking at.
So, just to go into that a little bit more there are three states you are kind of scene there. There’s calm, focused, and tense. Just to break that down, the way that it works actually is very simple. It takes your baseline breathing rate, so mine is 19 breaths per minute. And so, anywhere plus or minus two off that is what they categorize as focus. If my breathing rate slips below 17 for example for a few minutes, then that would be calm. If it goes kind of haywire and goes above or it’s kind of erratic, that’s when it’s tense.
So, it’s a kind of very simple algorithm for determining these three cognitive states, kind of the very first attempts at this kind of thing in consumer electronics.
And so, I guess the first impression that I had was like okay, what does this really tell you, right. So, all right, I could tell I’m calm at the moment or I’m tends. Kind of a quick UI feature is that when I’m tends it buzzes, so it tells me to like slow down my breathing.
So that’s kind of the very basics of what you can do. You could customize it in any way you want with the app, but we’re sticking with that for now.
And so, when I was first using it, I was like okay, I don’t know how useful this is but really the insight came when I started zooming out. This is not available on the, this is an open API in the back that you can use, and take out all of your breathing data, and through some kind of Python you plot it on a chart like this.
And so, to take you through this chart, the red zone is tense, so the y-axis is my breathing rate. If it’s high that’s in the red zone. The kind of middle zone is blue, that’s focused, and kind of below that it’s calm. And so, I tried to make this kind of intuitive. The baseline is the dotted line in the middle, and so this is over the course of a day I guess starting at midnight. So the beginning is really my sleep, what my breathing rate looks like.
And so, some interesting patterns in the data to begin with, you have these sleep cycle looking things. It’s very qualitative, but I’m guessing the spikes are during REM sleep, and there’s another dip at kind of the end of the day what I like to call food coma, I’m not sure from all of this experience from time to time.
So, just based on this, a highly stereotypical day maybe there is something in there, you know like may be breathing rate does tell you about your focus.
So, here’s another thing, just because I’m a student I would classic like, I have two classes in between, I’m rushing between classes, so my breathing rate goes up naturally. But you know, my breathing rate for the most part is within the focus ranged as the class by it during class, and I try to stay as focused as possible just to make it highly stereotypic.
And so I guess, based on these two alone kind of my intuition was like okay, maybe breathing rate could be a really good measure for focus. And kind of the next three slides I’m going to show you are three study sessions that I’ve had. One is good, one is less good, and one is bad. And so what were the signatures of those.
So, the very good one starts out very much in the focus zone. And by hour two or three, it kind of goes up in the tense region. This is pretty interesting. It’s kind of concurrent with my subjective kind of feelings about how I kind of felt during that study session, and you can feel tense and you’re like okay, like that time to wrap up right.
And so, a takeaway from this is maybe at the end, maybe I should keep my study sessions like 90 minutes or 100 minutes, or however much it takes to get to that zone.
Here’s something actually I did forget to mention, that last slide was in the evening. This slide is a study session I had early in the morning. So, I’m not a morning person and I often have a little hunch that I focus less in the morning. What I found was my breathing was actually lower in the morning. Maybe it’s this physiological thing in general that people have lower breathing rates in the morning, but what I found was I was less focused at this time, and found the signature that goes along with it which was kind of interesting finding to me. And these kind of like kind of signatures that I found, every 20 minutes it would dip down. I don’t know, maybe it’s something to do with Pomodoros, talked a lot about that over the past couple of days, but just kind of interesting artefacts that I found within the data. So, it’s hard for me to focus in the morning.
And the last thing was a particularly like unsuccessful study session, where I just really couldn’t get into the zone. I was trying all these different things. But what I found it was kind of erratic, so they kept going up and down, and up and down and just beyond the basic data this could inform like what I could do. Maybe a meditation technique or something to stabilize my breathing is what I’m looking for in these times when it’s hard to focus.
And so just to recap of what I learned, so breathing rate is probably a good measure for focus, just based on this very preliminary data. I didn’t try any AB testing or any things that a lot of people have done. This is very, very baseline.
My breathing rate tends to be more erratic after a few hours of studying, so maybe I should take a pause after 90 minutes. I tend to focus better in the evening time. Unsuccessful study sessions are characterized by my highly volatile breathing patterns.
So, it’s hard to know how exactly to use this data, because there’s this chicken, egg problem right. So for example, in the evening time, I wondered if people who are morning people have the opposite profile of me. If there breathing rate is actually higher in the morning and then it dips down in the evening. Maybe that’s why they’re morning people.
I don’t have a friend that’s a morning person, so unfortunately couldn’t try that out but I’m hoping somebody could. So, these are the kind of things that I’m just looking at, and kind of what’s next is apart from extending this research is also there’s actually another wearable in the same class that’s coming out called the Fosi. They are a kickstarter right now, they are shipping in October but the Spire has been really interesting to me because it was a tool that I use but they are mainly focused on reducing stress. This wearable that’s actually coming out either the Cambridge lab or Oxford lab, I can’t remember sorry. But they’re focused on Focus, AI mind coach and that’s something that I’m really excited to try out in the next few months.
So thank you.