Ever arrived to work so flustered by your perilous commute that you just want to scream at someone?
What if you could go back in time to that stressful part of your morning, play it in slow motion, and press “pause” right at the beginning — when you first feel the blood rush to your cheeks and the thoughts in your brain start to blur? What if you could stop, take a deep breath, and ride it out — instead of letting your emotions get the best of you?
Tech startup Neumitra, one of billionaire Peter Thiel’s newest Breakout Labs grantees, wants to give you that option. (The exact amount of funding Neumitra received from Thiel is undisclosed, but Breakout Labs typically invests between $US100,000 and $US350,000 on each of its selected companies.)
The new company, headed by former MIT neuroscientist Robert Goldberg, is designing a wearable device to measure our stress levels in real time — whether we’re paying attention or not — and alert us to the first signs of stress via a gentle vibration.
The idea behind the technology is simple: Since stress triggers a physiological response in the body (quicker heart rate, faster breathing, sweating), measuring it could give us an opportunity to nip it in the bud.
Goldberg’s device is a smartwatch with sensors embedded inside that use skin conductance, a century-old technique (still widely used for things like biofeedback therapy, in which patients learn to control body functions with specific thoughts) that measures the electrical conductivity of the fingers, palms, and feet. The more we sweat, the more electricity we conduct in these areas.
Since sweat is controlled by the same part of the nervous system that handles our stress response, our skin conductivity can serve as a potential indicator of whether or not we’re stressed — though of course it’s not quite that simple.
How it works
Users wear a smartwatch with the Neumitra hardware embedded inside. After a few days of wearing the device, it “learns” the user’s typical levels and picks up on when those levels dramatically rise or fall — such as when someone is exercising or sleeping. If the device starts to vibrate and you’re at the gym, for example, you could simply press a button to turn it off.
Which brings us to the purpose of the device: To alert people to places, situations, or events that they may never have identified as “stressful,” but may nonetheless be triggering a physical stress response in their bodies.
Say you’re in the middle of a meeting or driving on the freeway when suddenly your wrist starts to buzz.
This is your opportunity to change how you respond to the stressful incident. Rather than carrying on, business as usual, as your stress levels mount, you could ideally stop, take a breath, and calm yourself down.
“We often don’t recognise a stressful situation until far after it’s happened,” Goldberg told Business Insider. “This allows you to know in the moment what’s happening to you mentally and physically.”
This could be especially useful at work, where stress can snowball throughout a long
day at the office until suddenly you feel emotionally overwhelmed or burned out.
Even if we’re completely unaware of it initially, stress over the long term can mess with our memory, make us more emotionally reactive, and decrease our ability to focus. When we’re constantly under stress, we also become more prone to illness.
Neumitra could help show people what parts of their day might stress them out without their knowledge, so they can come up with solutions to avoid added anxiety. “If you find out the most stressful part of your day is your commute,” Goldberg suggests as an example, “and you’re coming to work already stressed out, you’re not going to do your best work. Maybe it would be better for you to work from home.”
Neumitra is still honing its product, and only one device, the smart watch, is available for purchase — at the hefty price tag of $US1,500. (The team is also working on embedding the Neumitra technology in tiny devices called “biomodules” that could then be incorporated into other items that people already wear, like necklaces or other types of jewelry, Goldberg says).
Still, skin conductance is far from a fool-proof measure of stress. Everything from the medication someone is taking to the temperature and humidity of their surroundings can affect conductance measurements, potentially skewing results.
Lastly — and perhaps most importantly — scientists haven’t yet figured out how to differentiate psychological stress from physical effort. A small 2012 study of a “stress sensor” based on skin conductance, for example, found that people who were laughing hard, exercising, or experiencing stress all displayed the same physiological response (at least as measured by the device they were testing). Neumitra users will likely experience a similar problem.
Another study comparing the use of pupil diameter measurements against skin conductance in computer users to measure their stress levels found that while the pupil diameter measurements were accurate about 86% of the time in measuring participants’ stress levels, the skin conductance measurements were accurate only about 61% of the time. Such a high error rate can make a measurement almost useless.
Goldberg has thought a lot about these challenges. Incorporating extra sensors, he says, could help increase the accuracy of the device. To get the most well-rounded picture of what’s going on, though, he suggests users tap into other sources of medical data as well. Working more closely with a doctor is likely the best way to do this.
In the meantime, while the technology is far from perfect, it’s one of the first commercially-available means of letting people access highly complex, potentially vital information.
People are increasingly interested in tracking everything about their personal health: their sleep, their exercise, their food intake. It’s no surprise that stress, one of the most common psychological complaints, was close behind. If Neumitra can hone the accuracy of its device — a big if — stress could become one more symptom we can’t just ignore.
Now if only there was a cure.
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