Reverse Mood Tracking
mood & emotion | stress
A fascinating way of using mood tracking in a clinical setting has been pioneered by Dr. Alan Greene. His experiment with Reverse Mood Tracking came from pausing briefly before walking into an exam room to note his current mood. Then, after walking through the door, he would pause and note whether his mood had changed. His hypothesis was that the new mood would reflect, at least in part, with what was going on in the room. To check his hypothesis he would make a probing statement or question to see if his perception was indeed accurate.
We’re here to celebrate cool, clever tools to collect data about ourselves, track it, analyze it, and get insight into who we are. And those things maybe cutting edge like this or they may be as apparently simple as mood tracking, where you note your mood at a different time and figure out what patterns emerge from that.
But I’m here today to do the opposite of all that and instead talk about how I’ve been tabulating myself as a tool to gain insight into other people. It all started off on a really bad hair day. I was flying over Cabo St. Lucas without an airplane, when the phone rang and woke me up away from my dream. And the fragments fell away.
It was an emergency call from the hospital. I’m a physician. And went running in to help do an emergency C-section; the kid was in trouble. And after this blur of events that happened at the hospital, a miraculously beautiful baby girl was born, just with this glow of life about her which really excited.
Set up my watch, so there wasn’t time to go home. Ran to get breakfast, spilled breakfast all over myself, so I arrived at my office, un-showered, sleepy, hairied and not feeling good because there’s stains all over my shirt and my hair looked bad.
So the waiting room was full with kids. They were the kinds of kids in with minor complaints. I was rushing through the day and not making much in a way of connections. But then I walked into a room where there was a nine year old boy that I never met before; didn’t know him. But when I walked in the room, saw that his face was marred with deep clefts. His cleft lip and pallet had been repaired but he still didn’t have a nose. He didn’t have eyes. He had glass eyes in place, and when I reached out to shake his hand, it was a foreshortened arm with just three fingers at the end.
And so what happened in this particular case with this kid, he had something that I recognized from going in, and all of a sudden my bad hair day was nothing. He had embryotic band syndrome. It’s this thing that happens in about one in 25000 kids, where the embryonic fluid that’s supposed to support them and protect them gets tangled up with them instead. There face fuses into it, it creates this big cleft. It ruptures, the bands wrap around them, they get tangled up and it amputates and shortens limbs.
So what you’re left with, this was an absolutely brilliant, normal nine year old boy whose blind and disfigured; normal emotions, normal intellect. So I’m sort of overwhelmed and so impressed with him in our initial conversation. And I look up to start asking him questions about what brought him in that day and he was crying, and just pools of tears and I was surprised because I didn’t know he could cry and didn’t know there were even tear ducts there. But I said, and I put my hand on his shoulder and said, Steven, why are you crying? And he said, Doctor Green, I’m just so happy that you’re smiling at me and I was stunned, stunned in a couple of ways.
We’re sitting here beaming at each other in this room with this brave boy, and one thing is I void I wanted to take the time in every clinical encounter to actually see who’s in front of me and smile at them and notice them. We all need that; not just disfigured kids.
But the big thing to me was also how did he do that! How did he know I was smiling? So I started looking in the literature a little bit about this and there’s’ a lot I could talk about, but there’s research going on in Parma, in Italy with monkeys. And what they did is they were checking to see which neurons in the brain fired at which moments. They figured out when they reached to get food there was a certain bundle of neurons that would fire.
That part had been tracked down, and what they did was in the lab it was a hot day, and they took a break for lunch and one of the grad students came back a little bit early with an ice-cream cone. And when the grad student brought his ice-cream cone to his own mouth the monkey’s neurons started firing like the monkey was eating. And he thought he was crazy so he repeated it, and when people came back to the lab they didn’t believe it and replicated it.
And what came out of that was this whole theory about mirrored neurons, neurons in our brains that in the primates brains that fire as if they were doing the material even if they were not moving. When they heard a banana being opened it was like they were eating. When they heard a peanut being opened or saw somebody else eating. And in humans now there’s been research showing that in with piano players, that if a pianist listens to a piano play it’s as if the brain acts like they’re playing the piano; it’s amazing.
Now there’s’ some strengths and weaknesses to this research and the theory has some parts to work out. But to me the part that was really exciting was the emotional piece. The emotional centers in the brain light up when you’re in the same room with somebody, experiencing strong emotions. So if they have this really intense emotion and there interior insular is lighting up yours will to.
So I decided to try that in the exam room at the office. This experiment I call reverse mood tracking, where I would pause for a moment before walking into an exam room and noticed how I was feeling. Then I would walk through the door, pause again and notice how I was feeling. And whatever little shift took place in my mood I would hypothesize that what came from what the family inside was experiencing because nothing had changed in me except going through the door.
And so I would say, I would walk in and I’d feel a little tired and I would say, ‘isn’t it exhausting to have kids sometimes, to be a parent sometimes’. So I would make my little hypotheses so I would do a calibrating question, a probing statement to test it. And their response was often ‘yeah, it’s so tiring’, or I would learn that I had gotten it wrong and they would say, ‘I’m exhausted but it’s my husband not the kids’. Or they would say ‘I’m not tired, I just don’t care anymore’, and we would talk about depression.
But sometimes I wouldn’t get something, but most of the times through the day there would be something that would come up. So I would walk in and feel fear and they came in for lymph nodes and then I would say ‘often when patients find a lump they’re afraid of cancer’, and that would open up the conversation. Or I would come in and feel nervousness, and onetime that led me to look for abuse and we found it that I might not have picked up on it otherwise.
So another time we walked in I would just feel delight that we celebrated the kids together, but reversible tracking is really simple. Pay attention on the way in, pause, make a hypothesis, and for me the door has become the trigger. So what I did was reverse mood tracking.
How I did it, I just told you, but what I leaned it was the fastest way for me to get to the heart of the matter. It’s changed my clinical experience entirely. Every door is a trigger, and whatever doors are opening up for you.
The other big thing I learned, is the self-part of Quantifies Self is huge. Our bodies, our brains are amazing array of sensors and analytical engines, and we’re part of the feedback loop. No matter how cool the tool is, it’s the self that quantifies, the self that is quantified and ourselves are connected. We’re changing each other just by being in the same room.
Thank you very much.