Technology for Mindfulness
cognition | diet and weight loss | mood & emotion
Can you use technology to be more mindful? Nancy acknowledges at the start of her talk that QS is often thought to be mainly about technology. In her talk, Nancy explains how she stumbled upon the idea of integrating mindfulness into her QS practice. When 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. Inspired by a fascinating QS talk by George Lawton about observing his smiles, Nancy built her own smile detection and real-time feedback system.
self-report cognitive functioning | Withings Smart Body Analyzer
So I want to talk about Quantified Self, technology and mindfulness a little bit today.
So Quantified Self gets a reputation for a little bit of technology obsession a lot. I can totally understand this. I have electrodes glued to my face. It makes sense. But what I want to talk about is the Quantified Self as I’ve come to see it and Alex has a great expression for this. She said that Quantified Self is a very mindful community, and I thought that was a really interesting phrase because mindfulness itself is a really old concept. It’s simply regulating your attention to the moment, observing without judgement, and it’s also a form. There’s mindfulness meditation, there’s just moment of self-reflection in your everyday life.
At first mindfulness and what we do at QS can seem like totally different things. They don’t seem to pair that well. But I think if we shape the technology for it properly they can both lead us to the same place.
So mindfulness was not on my radar when I joined Quantified Self. Technology was on my radar. I wanted cool devices and I wanted to learn from them. So it was after about a year of self-tracking that I stumbled on mindfulness, or more accurately a year of failing miserably at self-tracking. I would try everything, put them all into devices, get to the top of the leader board and then a couple of weeks later something stressful would happen. I would leave it at home and I would never touch it again. It was a wasteland of empty online biometric profiles.
So there was one piece of data that I kept for a reasonably long time and that was my withings skill data, and when I look back on that I actually found that this data made a lot of sense. You could really see what I was going through emotionally in the data. There was moving to a new place, having a stressful project that worked and you could see the weight go up. And then hitting the project milestones, feeling amazing about my life. Hiring a personal trainer and doing really good, and then hitting more stressful patches and having it go back up.
So what I realized with this is I have been trying all this biometric tracking, trying to be more consistent in my health and more healthy habits. But the whole time not just my health habits, but even my tracking habits were completely reliant on my emotional state.
So here I was trying to track all these symptoms and I was completely ignoring the cause which is where my head was at more or less. So this inspired my first experiments into mood tracking with the placebos that Gary mentioned.
So basically what these gave me was an experiment where I tracked each negative emotion and the biometric data surrounding it. And my goal was to collect all this data and then goes through and look at correlations and try and see what I could discover from the data itself.
But the interesting thing I found was the longer I went on with the experiment, the less the data meant to me. So when at the end I didn’t really care about the data at all. I wasn’t looking at it. I was just looking at it for validation, but that wasn’t where the discovery was. Because I realized that just by tracking my emotions I was completely changing them.
So I’m sure people here have found this before when you’re track something that changes your behaviors and I had seen it mildly in tracking steps. But when I was tracking emotions it was completely different; it was a whole new phenomenon. Because just by tracking my emotions I was able to stabilize them better. My moods were much more stable. I could prevent myself from spiraling into negative emotions. I was no longer a victim to my mindset, just to this awareness that was required through the self-tracking.
So in another really common breakthrough, I realized I was not the first person to discover this. This has been around for a really long time, so least the patent’s expired so I’m safe there.
So this is moving inward, this is what mindfulness practice is all about. Taking that moment of self-reflection, that moment that we need to really think about how we’re feeling in order to track and the benefits that I was having are actually highly documented. Like we know that mindfulness space therapy reduces stress. They make you happier; they remove our mood disturbances, even boost the immune system and lower blood pressure.
So I’d solved it. All I needed to do was be mindful and meditate and I would be super happy and everything would be fabulous, I give you this wisdom and we’re all problem solved, and unfortunately it wasn’t that easy. Because the thing is it’s really really hard to be mindful.
I hate meditating. I keep trying it. I get migraines every time I do it. I’m awful at it. It does not work for me. So I could practice that really hard and really focus on that, but I don’t like that path. You know, we live in a really noisy world. We have all sorts of distractions. There are all sorts of places our brain can be, and our brains are kind of working against us here to. Always latching on to stress or fear or worry, or looking into the past or the future, and they do thisso much that we can literally make ourselves physically sick by all these things that our brain is creating.
And on the surface technology seems to be making this even worse. We’re constantly carrying around this portal that will let us know what’s going on in the world is drawing us outside of ourselves to more and more information.
But none of this is technologies fault. Mindfulness has been around as a practice long before we had phones. And Robert Sapolsky was even seeing these same stress habits in primate’s way before we had the orangutan iPad.
So this was the problem I was facing. I couldn’t bring myself to be mindful in this hugely noisy environment, and this is where I turned back to the Quantified Self for answers but for two reasons. The core of mindfulness is reflecting on yourself with openness, curiosity, and acceptance. And these are four themes of Quantified Self; this is how we solve experiments. But even more, this problem I was having, this is a problem that we’re used to.
It’s something of having trouble of being aware of an aspect of myself, much like we have trouble monitoring our activity levels or our response to caffeine. So I wanted to do what Quantified Self does when we hit this problem. I wanted to use technology to help feedback the information to me so I can be more aware.
So the idea is using Quantified Self as a tool for mindfulness is already in use. We have mood tracking apps, like this one here MoodJam, they really cover ways to keep us engaged with our emotions, because we need to be engaged with them to track them. And if you need to think about what color your mood is you have to reflect on where you are.
There are also biometric devices that are doing the same thing. They give us biometric measure that indicates where our mental states are. For example, the EMWave2 will use heart rate variability to guide you into a medative state of mind. And the Stanford Technology Labs which I think is well represented here, they have this really cool system called Breath Aware, where they would put breathing belts on people and have an ambient display of their breath rate on desktops, which more or less gives you an idea of how stressed you are.
And this led to observances of things like email apnea is something I’ve heard. When you check your email apparently we get really stressed and either don’t breathe at all, hold our breath or breathe really shallowly. Which is a response, you know our conscious brain is usually not aware of that and we have no idea. It’s just our subconscious is wreaking havoc on our system doing whatever it wants to when we’re not paying attention.
So I want to extend my mindfulness experimentation in the same thread, because I find it so hard to listen to myself. I want a technology that would kind of give me feedback as to where I was mentally. And I was inspired by an amazing talk by George Lawson. So he did a talk and he mentioned that our emotional state is often reflected in our face before we even realize what it is, or maybe without us realizing at all. And I thought that was really cool.
And there was a talk that was given here last year by Ron Gutmann on the power of smiling and how it can bring a lot of joy, and also help engage us with other people. So I figured this was a great place to start experimenting.
So I built this. It’s been blinking for most of the talk. This is because I smile a lot when I talk. So this is a little EMG sensor. It’s really simple and I just built it to test what it would be like and it senses when I smile and I didn’t just want to sense and track. I wanted it to really amplify and give me really great feedback as to whether or not I was feeling happy. And nothing makes me happier than really blinky sparkles and lights, so I attached lots of LEDs to it. And I set it up so that every time I smile it would trigger in a cascade of lights, and that would both let me know, hey something great just happened and also help engage other people with me.
So there’s also software to track the number of smiles and a feature in here so if I don’t smile for too long it will start blinking as well, a kind of help, sparkle me out in whatever funk I’m in. So I’ve been wearing this around for about a week, and the most interesting thing I’ve noticed is that it’s really alerted me to when my face and my subconscious are doing things that my conscious brain didn’t quite recognize.
So one example of that is at work you know when you’re in the middle of something and you just need to walk up to someone and get an answer or a tool, or something really quickly, and the entire time during the whole transaction your brain is completely focused on the task. The person’s just part of the transaction where you’re getting some piece of information, and that’s what I would do. I’d be in the middle of something, I’d walk up and try and get something from them and I’d go back. But what I didn’t realize is that whenever I engage someone my face is doing something that my brain is totally unaware of. Like my face smiles like I want to engage with them.
And the first time I realize this, I walk up to go ask someone a question, and suddenly I’m just startled by all these lights. And we have this moment where instead of just carrying out this transaction, we actually take a moment and actually smile at each other and you’ll have that experience that joy, like I’m having a human moment here, I’m happy to see you, okay, now I’ll ask the question.
So I thought that was really powerful because that’s something I’ve always wanted to do. Like I’ve always wanted to be more like my dog; every time I see the dog, and I could be gone for 60 seconds and be back, he’ll run up and be so happy to see me. And that always inspires so much joy. Like that’s the kind of joy I want to bring to the world.
So I always wanted to do that. I always wanted to be more excited when I saw people. But it’s one of those goals that’s really hard to enforce or keep track of. And that’s what I found happening with this is every time I would walk up to someone, no matter what my conscious brain wanted to do, my subconscious brain would smile and trigger this distracting fun light that would really force us to reflect on the moment. Go ahead and be happy and enjoy that.
So this is a really early stage device. It’s simple and anyone who wants to make one come and talk to me; they’re really easy. Something I want to refine and experiment a lot more with, but for now I want to bring this back to Quantified Self in general because mindfulness isn’t just about tracking emotions, it’s observing ourselves with curiosity, openness, and acceptance. And that’s why I think Quantified Self is such a mindful community because that philosophy of openness, curiosity, and acceptance is what drives all of our experimentation.
We discover and even try to improve ourselves by observing our inner actions, so whether that’s step counts, productivity, sweet zones it’s all the same. It’s all trying to learn about ourselves. I’m trying to build self-awareness through technology and that’s why I’m so excited to see what everyone has done this week end and talk to to all.