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How Your Smartwatch Can Know You Better Than Yourself

Wearable tech can help you identify which activities fulfill you the most.

Who knows you better, you or your smartwatch? Whatever you think the answer might be right now, it may not be long before the indisputable answer is your smartwatch.

We like to think that we know ourselves and what makes us fulfilled and engaged in our lives and in our activities. But science finds that the human capacity for self-awareness is limited. It’s not just the daily grind that distracts us from our own mental states. It’s the very fact that a lot of our mental life—our feelings, beliefs, and motivations—is outside of our conscious awareness. As psychologist Timothy Wilson nicely put it, we are “strangers to ourselves.”

Cue your biology. Psychological and neuroscience research shows that our bodies may know how we are responding to the world faster and better than our conscious minds do. An increasing understanding of how this works may help scientists and engineers, in turn, to develop technologies that can help us better understand ourselves and live more fulfilling lives. The Quantified Self movement was an early expression of this trend, though its accessibility and capabilities were limited. With more time and research, technology will be able to help people do more than just sleep better or set new fitness records. It will help them understand and tap into their innermost needs and motivations as human beings.

What the Research Shows

There are many signals flowing from your body that reveal both your conscious and unconscious feelings and motivations which drive all sorts of behaviors. In a way, we have long known this. A blushing face may show a potential love interest how you feel before you’re ready to disclose your true feelings, for example, and authors have long used this as a literary device to clue readers in on the true feelings of a character.

Thanks to science, we are now beginning to understand this link on a deeper, more technical level. For instance, researchers have found that our biology can signal learning. The task used to determine this (coined the Iowa Gambling Task) is an earnings card game where people can earn more if they select cards from decks that earned money (good decks) instead of those that lost money (bad decks). What they found was that people playing this game begin to select from the good decks over the bad decks long before they consciously understand why they are doing it. However, tiny changes in their skin sweat are able to predict their unconscious learning of the advantageous behavior.

My own research tells a similar story. It shows, for instance, that hormones can identify emotions such as empathy and distress and that changes in heart rhythms can predict who will donate to a charity. In short, our biology might reveal what we can’t articulate about ourselves.

A Future with Tech-Assisted Self-Awareness

There are numerous potential implications to what we are learning about the connections between our physiology and our innermost thoughts, feelings, and motivations. One result of this has been companies pursuing the creation of technologies designed to measure and translate those connections for people to use outside the laboratory. In particular, the potential for such technology to become a tool that’s widely accessible to everyone, not just to a select few, is exciting. Eventually, we could have wearable technology in the form of watches, glasses, and “smart” clothes that measure our brain activity, eye gaze, facial expressions, skin sweat, heart activity, and voice to analyze things like our attention, emotions, motivation, and learning at every moment throughout the day.

Using the self-awareness gained from this technology, we could then establish conditions intended to repeat ideal physical, mental, and emotional states as frequently and for as long as possible. For instance, you could discover which exercises and sports fulfill you the most mentally and emotionally in addition to making you healthier physically; which hobbies offer an enjoyable challenge while measurably reducing your stress; which intellectual subject matters engage you the deepest, and so on. These tools would provide deep insights into who we are-—as parents, spouses, neighbors, employees, and every other role we fill and relationship we have.

How This Can Lead to Flourishing

Your biology does not care if you are happy. It does care if you survive or not, which is why humans have evolved to be on the lookout for imminent danger and stress. But while we no longer have to beware of stalking lions, our brains remain very good at identifying threats, and we’re not as good at recognizing when we’re content or engaged or joyful. Research shows that when humans are feeling an emotional connection, we are more likely to remember and be positively impacted by an experience. We crave this sense of engagement and yet often don’t know how to identify it in ourselves. Someday soon, though, Siri might be able to tell us when we really value an experience and recommend that we do more of it, or alert us when we are feeling blue and suggest whichever activities that it knows will cheer us up the most, be it inviting a friend out for coffee or going for a long walk in the park. To be happy, maybe we will just need to download an app.

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