My Feel: Can Emotion Sensing Wristbands Boost Well-Being?
What is the Feel wristband and how might it improve your emotional wellbeing?
Posted Sep 17, 2018
The truth is I'm often skeptical of new technology or apps that purport to be able to solve the mental health crisis. But I am also optimistic about the potential of technology to be able to reach people that traditional mental health services can't reach—those who live in rural areas, those who can't afford adequate treatment, or those whose mental health issues prevent them from being able to seek out adequate services. So indeed, there is good reason to develop technologies that boost mental health. Wearables represent one possible way to improve the delivery of mental health services. The question is, do they work? Can wearables like emotions sensing wristbands actually boost your well-being? Keep reading to decide for yourself.
Technology for Emotional Well-Being
Because I work at the intersection of technology and mental health, I come across a lot of technologies that aim to scale mental health treatment to meet the growing needs of a nation (and a world) undergoing what some are calling a mental health crisis. I truly believe the development of these technologies is a good thing. And that's why I've talked about lots of mental-health-focused technologies in previous articles—for example, games for happiness, happiness apps, and positive technologies. But I also believe it's important to clarify the potential benefits—and likely limitations—of these products so that we all have realistic expectations. So that's what I'll aim to do here.
Feel—An Emotion Sensing Wristband
One type of mental-health-focused technology that I have not yet discussed is emotion sensing wearables. There is a growing number of emotion-sensing wearables on the market. After chatting with George Eleftheriou, founder of Feel, I decided it was time to share my thoughts about wearable technologies for mental health.
Feel is an emotion sensor and mental health advisor. Feel is still in development, but the goal, according to the website, is to track your emotions using physiological sensors (skin conductance, heart rate, and skin temp) in a wristband. This data will then be filtered through an algorithm to provide you with personalized recommendations for mental health support and coaching.
This wristband sounds pretty fancy. But what does it actually mean for you and how might it improve your well-being?
Emotions and Physiology: Do They Agree?
The first question that comes to my mind is: Do your emotions and physiology agree? By this I mean, if a sensor detects a change in your physiology, does this mean you are experiencing a specific emotion (like sadness) or any emotion at all? The research suggests that no, single measures of physiology does not tend to be a good predictor of the specific emotions you are feeling.
Why might this be? Well, it's likely because your physiology is tracking everything that is going on in your body—your thoughts, feelings, body temperature, movement, and everything else. So when you track your physiology, you're tracking your whole body, not just your emotions.
Another potential issue with mapping emotions to physiology is that physiology is usually measured two-dimensionally. What I mean by this is that your heart rate can go up, it can go down, but it can not go side-to-side. We are in a highly activated state, a calm state, or somewhere in between.
Emotions, on the other hand, can not easily be quantified this way. Sure, your anger can go up or down, but what if your anger is mixed with sadness? Are you highly activated or are you calm? Are you feeling more activated when you are nervous or guilty? Annoyed or confident? Separating out these different emotions and mapping them to physiology has proved to be really challenging.
Check out this circumplex model to get a sense for how scientists quantify emotions.
Why Algorithms May Be Able to Sort out the Mess
So there is reason to be skeptical of mapping emotions directly to physiology. But there is also reason to be hopeful about the potential role of algorithms to sort out the mess. Why? Because an algorithm can detect patterns that we silly humans can not. For example, maybe if our heart rate goes up at a particular speed at the same time as our skin conductance, this pattern means we are experiencing anxiety. Because we humans can rarely look at enough possible combinations to find these patterns, an algorithm is likely to be more successful in mapping physiology to emotions, particularly if it has a lot of data from a lot of people to work with.
Why Personalization (And Personalized Medicine) is the Future of Mental Health
Another high-potential part of the plan for Feel and other wearables is that the algorithm will aim to give personalized recommendations for treatment based on each person's needs. Personalized medicine is rapidly gaining popularity because it seems to be effective, at least with treating physical health issues. Personalized medicine for mental health is coming along soon too, believe me.
Anyway, if an algorithm learns how to give the right advice for the right person based on their physiological data (collected from the wristband) then it doesn't really matter if scientists ever map physiology to emotions. All that matters is that they correctly map your physiology to the right intervention, support, or coaching. With enough data and enough research, this is totally in the realm of possibility. In fact, you can even help the science along by joining Feels's research study to collect the data needed to do this mapping for their mental health wristband.
So, Can Emotion Sensing Wristbands Boost Well-Being?
I'm not totally convinced of the impact yet, but I'm very optimistic that wearables like wristbands will be able to make a positive impact on mental health in the not-too-distant future.
Want to learn more about how to build well-being in the digital age? Check out Berkeleywellbeing.com.
Mauss, I. B., Levenson, R. W., McCarter, L., Wilhelm, F. H., & Gross, J. J. (2005). The tie that binds? Coherence among emotion experience, behavior, and physiology. Emotion, 5(2), 175.
Russell, J. A. (1980). A circumplex model of affect. Journal of personality and social psychology, 39(6), 1161.