The brain is arguably the least understood part of our body, and as a culture we tend to give less priority to how we feel mentally, and give a higher priority to how we look physically. While there is a connection between our physical and mental selves, the state of our mind goes far beyond just being physically fit.
Today, the wearables market reflects this tendency to focus more on our physical selves rather than our mental selves, with fitness trackers, smart watches, smart clothing, and smart shoes providing us with detailed biometric data on our heart rate, muscle activity, skin temperature, and oxygen saturation – all of which are indicators of the physical state of our body. At the same time, mental stress does have a correlation with heart rate, with some wearables purely using heart rate variability or skin temperature to provide indicators of stress. Sleep is another factor that could impact how we feel mentally, and wearables like the Oura smart ring have devised factors like “Readiness”, which combines heart rate, quality of sleep, skin temperature, oxygen levels, and other metrics to give you an indication about how ready you are to face the day, or whether you should take it easy. While this could also be an indicator of how you feel mentally, it doesn’t really provide an accurate picture of how ready you are mentally.
We live in an age of devices constantly pinging, tweeting, and nudging us. Douglas Copeland, artist in resident at the Google Cultural Institute, calls this the “superfuture”. He characterizes this as the present melting into the future, with us already living inside a future that is “weirdly electric and buzzy,” and showing no signs of ending. In this weird superfuture, it becomes even more important that we as human beings pay attention to our mental health. Feeling good is not just getting on the treadmill for 30 minutes, because the brain hasn’t really been given a chance to recover or exercise. We are already in an age where it is equally important to take a step back and listen to our mind.
A few wearable companies like Muse, Emotiv, Melon, and Melomind are all focusing on brain wellbeing, or fitness for the mind. The common thread binding them is their ability to detect brain waves or EEG. There are five different types of brain waves, depending on their frequency. These are infra-low, alpha, beta, theta, delta, and gamma. Each type of brain wave has a footprint and is linked to a particular brain state. For example, alpha waves are related to the state of relaxation, and beta waves are directed towards cognitive tasks and decision making, while theta waves are related to our sleep state. Wearable headbands are the first step toward better understanding our mental state, with companies offering mental exercises that can help the brain relax, or get better at certain tasks such as concentration. Also, within the enterprise we have seen solutions such as SmartCap, which detects fatigue in truck drivers, thus preventing accidents.
However, unlike activity trackers or smart watches, headbands have failed to sell in large volumes. One could argue that these devices are too costly, with an average price of $150-$300. However, most smart watches are in the same general price range. More likely, it is the perceived value that we attach to our mental wellbeing, versus having a fashion or fitness device on our wrists. The other reason for slow adoption could be that these devices can only be worn at certain times of the day, away from the public gaze, as they aren’t really designed to fit into our daily lives.
Measuring brain activity is specific to the head, and therefore any wearable that is targeting EEG needs to ideally have contact with the head. That’s where the problem lies in my opinion, as most people don’t wear headgear when they are out leading their daily lives. If there is a way to measure brain EEG from clothes, for example, or possibly parts of the ear or neck, we could have a much more acceptable solution. For example, brain activity measuring headphones are a good start, which could allow regular headphone users to track brain activity while they listen to music or the radio and go about their daily tasks. Ideally, brain-focused wearables need to become invisible and portable, but at the same time provide accurate information about our brain activity.
In addition, there is a lot of research underway on mental depression and how one’s browsing habits or mobile habits could be used to detect suicidal tendencies. Ginger.io is one of the startups working in this area, using data collected from a patient’s smartphone to help connect the dots between behavior and health.
By combining someone’s smartphone data with their EEG, as well as physiological markers like heart rate, we could start building a much more accurate picture of one’s mental state. There is also the opportunity to find new correlations between the data, to identify our interactions with our immediate environment, people, and places and see how that affects our mood and mental wellbeing. We haven’t even scratched the surface when it comes to finding correlations between disparate sources of data, and understanding how the brain works is a good place to start.
Recently, it was reported that a Fitbit user was able to identify the exact moment that he broke up with his girlfriend on the phone. This is a very simple example of how a simple fitness tracker can reveal so much about a person’s state of mental wellbeing. In this case, the person could really isolate the emotional episode. However, in most instances our mental state is a complex combination of various factors including our physical health, the environment, the people around us, and so forth. And therefore it becomes even more important to develop tools that help us look inward and really help us understand our emotions and moods to live not just physically fit, but also mentally fit, lives.