Doctors study stress of technology

Neuroscientists examine reactions to stresses

I recently had my brain mapped to find out how I handle stress.

I sat ensconced in a large black leather chair, hooked up to electrodes cemented through a bright red cap with some kind of gel.

Donnie, a senior technician with an impressive knowledge of applied neurobiology, guided me through a series of challenges meant to provide a baseline, determined through a qEEG (that is, a quantitative electroencephalogram), for a variety of things including how quickly my brain activates when faced with stressful situations, how it copes during those tasks, how quickly it recovers from errors and how it returns to a resting state.

I learned a few things from this exercise: One, the gel from the sensors seriously messes up your blow-out. Two, I perform optimally when everything is OK. But in high-pressure situations, I make mistakes. I'm less likely to recover and reset after those errors.

Most important, I learned that I can't still my mind: Even when I'm resting, my brain produces the same amount of activation as most people would in problem-solving mode.

This information came in the form of charts and graphs a few days after my qEEG assessment. It was explained to me by Dr. Leslie Sherlin, a neuroscientist and chief science officer of Neurotopia, a company that works primarily with elite athletes. In the case of those athletes, the assessment is followed by a series of training sessions designed to help them perform optimally during high-stress competitions.

The exercise was part of my ongoing research on emerging technologies that may help with stress, depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

On some level, I recognize the irony of examining how technology can help us relieve stress when many (and maybe even most) people may argue that technology itself is a huge contributor to our chronic stress. Each time I ask people over my social network how they use technology to de-stress, I receive a range of snarky responses along the lines of "I press the off button" or "I get on a plane and fly someplace with no signal."

Nonetheless, the field of wellness is a hot area in technology, growing ever more crowded with apps and gadgets (referred to hereafter as "gizmos") that determine how stressed you might be.

Some of these go on to offer assistance through guided imagery, deep breathing, self-hypnosis, and sound and sleep therapy. Several will send you texts to ask you how you're doing and whether you want to play a game or hear a song.

"Over the past few years, we have gotten very good at measuring and tracking our stress," said Dr. Eric Topol, director and chief academic officer at the Scripps Translational Science Institute and author of "The Creative Destruction of Medicine: How the Digital Revolution Will Create Better Health Care." Topol is a passionate advocate of the potential of personalized medicine to radically transform medicine as we know it.

Sensors can measure heart rate, blood pressure and skin conductance. We can now determine mood, mental state and depression through tone and inflection of voice, movement, position, activity and communication -- how much you are e-mailing, texting and phoning.

According to Topol, "We can generate exquisite health data -- virtually in real time -- about stress, anxiety and as well as both depressive and manic states."

But all of this measuring and tracking, to what end? Or as an attendee at a technology conference asked far more eloquently, "What the hell am I going to do with all this information?"

"Quantifying is actionable," Topol said. "When people get a feedback loop that makes them aware of stress that they were not in touch with, it motivates them and spurs them into taking action."

Of course, this has yet to be validated. The feedback loop we have perfected with respect to our diet and exercise levels has yet to lead to real and lasting change to our increasingly sedentary lifestyles and the obesity rates and escalating health costs that have resulted.

Because, as we all know, buying the app or gadget doesn't count. And having it sitting in perpetuity on your bedside table doesn't count, either. (It might even make a person a bit more stressed out every time she has to look at the bloody gizmo and recall that she hasn't ever actually used it.)

My hunch is that all this data will just be noise for a while. But eventually, it will begin to take shape.

We will watch those shapes for a while and start seeing patterns. Not only will we start to design products that help us lower our stress levels, we will also figure out how to design products in existing categories -- for example, household appliances, computers, cars and websites -- that are less stressful.

Neema Moraveji, director of the Stanford Calming Technology Lab, is at work designing a calming e-mail reader that delivers and organizes messages in a less frenzied way.

"People are reconsidering the blind pursuit of technology as an end. Some of us in the tech community are thinking about the effects of digital toxins the same way engineers, policy-makers and designers consider environmental toxins," Moraveji said.

For now, this is all you need to know: The best stress reducer is the one you use.


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