This study showed that people trained in and encouraged to use “compassionate thought” meditation showed more positive emotions and “an improvement in vagal function

Interestingly, this study used Heart Rate Variability (HRV) measurements as a proxy for Vagus nerve strength.  I love the premise, and am curious how we could shorten the feedback loop to help remind (and encourage) people to pause for compassionate, kind meditations- especially when we need it most.  Real-time HRV, respiration, Galvanic Skin Response, and blood pressure sensors have occasionally raised the possibility of real-time, continuous stress (and maybe compassion/kindness?) sensors, but none have yet delivered.  I’m curious about the inherent SNR limitations of these metrics as a proxy for stress measurements.  Hopefully we’ll see some good stress/meditation sensors out there soon (or I may have to build one myself :) )

This article made me think of a conversation I had in my office yesterday (paraphrased):

1:  ”I have way too many photos, don’t know what to do with them”

2: “Google+ has a new feature that will automatically select highlights from a large photoset”

1: “Awesome!  I’ll try that!”

2:  ”Or you could Mechanical Turk it”

1: “Nah, I’m not sure I trust people to do it”

As our environment (and ourselves) become wirelessly sensed and connected, we’re finding more and more areas of life to solve and optimize with technological solutions.  Technology-based chauffeurs, personal assistants, personal trainers…. yes please! Here’s to a sensor-filled, interconnected world :)

"QS is a kind of secular ritual. To be meaningful, it can’t be carried out on our behalf by gadgets. ”

There are many interesting ideas and questions in this fabulous essay on the Quantified Self by John-Paul Flintoff, but my favorite is: If we design perfect monitors that record without any effort, will we lose the mindfulness benefit of the “ritual” of self-tracking?  Does the shortcut of technology (like using a monitor to track stress levels) atrophy our ability to notice it ourselves, or can it help alert and train us to notice it better?  The classic Fitbit example plays in here- if you’re walking solely to win the Fitbit competition, do you lose your natural desire to walk or run such that you won’t do it if you forget your fitbit at home?  And if you have become dependent on the technology for motivation, is that inherently a bad thing?

I think it’s important when designing tracking tools to design for educating and increasing people’s inherent motivations to be healthier, not just *replacing* those inherent motivations with features like leaderboards and competitions.

This somehow makes me feel slightly less awful about being a mediocre dancer.

This study looks at how cognitive load affects empathy, and finds that rather than being completely automatic, empathic processes can be disrupted by cognitive load.

The connectedness of modern society provides many distraction, and gives your thoughts many places to be besides the moment, with the people around you.  This can be good and bad- while giving us the communication channels to empathize with people and populations in diverse areas and cultures, it may also distract us from an empathic connection with those around us daily.  

Findings like this show that mindfulness needs to be about more than self-awareness- it is about bring present to be fully aware of others as well.  This was one of the purposes of the display in my “smile sensor”- to not only track my own emotions, but also draw others in to full engagement.

Something to keep in mind while designing :)

"Unsupervised Learning Algorithms"


Your Memories: More RAM than ROM

This fascinating Wired article explores new research into memory, where scientists can incredibly selectively erase memories in rats.  This discovery, as well as related human trials, are centered around the realization that our memories are less static than we tend to assume.  Each time we reflect on a memory, we are doing much more than a read-only process.  We actually overwrite the memory, re-creating it.

In the rat experiments, a chemical is injected into the brain that prevents the rats from being able to re-form that memory.  So when they access it and go to over-write it, the write fails, and the memory is wiped out.

This is the point where it’s easy to go down the path of “is it good to erase traumatic memories?”- which is a fascinating moral question all to it’s own.  But what I’m more interested in is how we can use this in our everyday lives to makes ourselves happier.  The study mentions experiments on sufferers of PTSD where they had them recall traumatic memories while under the influence of ecstasy.  That way, when they re-wrote the memory of the traumatic incident, their positive state of mind would infuse itself into that memory, creating drastic positive results.

Taking ecstasy isn’t a whole lot less controversial than erasing memories, though, so lets take another step back into non-chemical related experiments.  I have often found that dwelling on problems makes them seem worse, and thinking about them out in sunlight on a nice walk makes them better.  And trying to infuse a sense of “what’s the positive side” of an experience or situation often helps me through rough patches.  To me, this article is about empowerment, and our control over our own memories.  If we know that we can re-write memories just by thinking about them over and over with a new “spin”, why not use it to our advantage?

For now, this knowledge will go into my toolbox of self-improvement and experimentation- not to erase memories, but to shape the way I recall them into the positive experience that I want my life to be.

To anyone who’s been trapped in a room with sticky-pad encrusted walls while biting back criticism of some horrific suggestion in the name of “open-minded brainstorming”- here’s an article on studies that seem to debunk the “religion” of brainstorming.

In one of my favorite slide shows of all time, Sebastian Deterding (@dingstweets) shines a light on many of the fallacies and pitfalls of the “gamification” craze- notably, that adding game mechanics doesn’t instantly make something fun.  In fact, even video games (which aren’t trying to make you do anything painful like run or eat healthy) can be horrible flops.  In the game world as well as the health “gamification” world, and in fact any product world at all, good, thoughtful, tested, iterated design is key to a compelling product.

Additionally, the intent of your system, and the way you reward the users is important.  An interesting point he makes is “Playing video games is intrinsically rewarding, not extriniscally motivating”, emphasizing that the reward of games is mastery, not points.  Often, “gamified” systems like Fitbit remove the intrinsic motivation and desire for mastery, and instead replace it with a shorter-lived addiction to points and leaderboards.  Has anyone else heard a story from someone who used to be an joyful runner where they decided *not* to run because they forgot their Fitbit and it wouldn’t “count”?  By creating an independent, artificial value system and rewarding it, the system opens the door for a host of detrimental unintended consequences.  Sebastian has several fantastic examples of this.

As the field of health and biometric monitoring devices grows and spreads, I hope more voices like this join the conversation, and emphasize the importance of good, thoughtful, design in gamified user interfaces, not just badges and points!

Sensor Technology for Behavior Change

More and more we see that new sensor technologies, however cool they are, die a cold death of disuse without meaningful metrics and UI.  A while ago I synthesized some information on the big buzzwords in the “meaning creation” field; for a quick overview check out my presentation on slideshare!  (The speaker notes offer much more detail and references)

*Clarification:I know “Gamification” is becoming an over-used, ill-defined, loved and hated word. What it means to me is leveraging the types of feedback that makes repeating an action over and over again in a game so compelling- a much deeper, complex subject than just badges and statuses!