We’re stressed — and it’s getting worse. According to the Stress in America™ 2020 report, 67% of adults have experienced increased stress over the last year, with 49% saying their behavior has been negatively affected. And while the report highlights the considerable impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, it also points to the compounding effect of “societal stressors that have been pervasive in previous years,” noting that many Americans now report stress-related symptoms such as increased bodily tension, reduced patience with family members and unexpected mood swings.
There’s no quick fix to this problem. Even an end to pandemic pressures won’t prompt an immediate return to normalcy, and concerns around issues such as rising debt load, climate change and affordable health care will remain long after the “next normal” gets off the ground.
But it’s not all bad news. Recent advancements in wearable device development may offer new ways to mitigate stress, improve focus and manage mental health. Here’s a look at the potential future of wearable technology — and why it may all be in your head.
The 10% Solution
Despite repeated and thorough debunking, the myth that human beings only use 10% of brains remains pervasive. As Psychological Science notes, this mental misunderstanding may trace its origins to a statement made by William James in 1907.
“Most of us feel as if we lived habitually with a sort of cloud weighing on us,” James wrote, “below our highest notch of clearness in discernment, sureness in reasoning or firmness in deciding. Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half-awake. Our fires are damped, our drafts are checked. We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources.”
Despite its development into a defense of hidden human potential, the statement itself rings true — as the pressures of daily life and work continue to ramp up, many people feel they’re not making the best use of mental resources. Even more worrisome? For almost half of all adults, these challenges eventually manifest as mental illness. Effective treatment for these issues is unfortunately hit or miss — there’s still significant stigma attached to many mental illnesses, and according to the World Health Organization (WHO), 40% of countries worldwide have no mental health policies in place.
The result? Finding help for everything from everyday stress to more serious mental issues is no easy task — but wearables may offer a workaround.
What’s New in Wearable, Mental Machinery?
In much the same way that fitness and health wearables have captured consumer interest in recent years with diversified offerings capable of tracking steps, monitoring heart rates and even alerting physicians to potential problems, there’s now significant movement in the mental wearable device market. And while many of these technologies are still in their infancy, they promise a host of possibilities that could help humans better manage their mental health.
Here are some of those interesting and innovative approaches.
Tools such as Foci are designed to capture breathing signals with a small device kept close to the abdomen. In theory, even slight alterations in air intake and outflow can indicate changing stress levels, which are represented by color-changing orbs in Foci’s mobile app. Lose focus, and the orbs change color, even as the app “nudges” users to become more focused, both by automatically switching smartphones into do-not-disturb mode (if desired) and tracking focus patterns over time. Reviews are mixed — positioning and pairing the device correctly can be challenging — but this focused feedback idea has potential.
There’s also a push to monitor medication intake for patients who require it. Devices such as Abilify MyCite use a combination of sensor-equipped pills and smart patches worn on the torso to confirm when medication is taken as prescribed, which in turn may help patients stay on track and reduce the risk of severe schizophrenia or bipolar disorder episodes.
Other wearable solutions, such as TouchPoint, look to mitigate anxiety by providing tactile, bilateral alternating stimulation — buzzing or pulsing stimuli that occur in a left-right pattern — using devices worn on the wrists or carried in pockets. While there is some evidence for the efficacy of bilateral alternating stimulation for stress management, more research is needed on the effect at scale.
At Texas A&M, researchers are developing a continuous monitoring tool that collects physical data, such as heart rates, along with self-reported information about students’ mental states to connect users with relevant mental health services such as mindfulness exercises, self-assessments and virtual counseling sessions.
Work from the University of Calgary is looking to solve challenges around emotional stress, such as feelings of being lonely or isolated. Art student Alex Mai develop a “loneliness pillow,” which uses heating pads and pressurized air to create a large-scale wearable capable of simulating a human hug.
Mindful meditation is also on the horizon for mental health wearables. Solutions such as Muse leverage smart headbands capable of tracking brain signals that are then interpreted and applied to meditation sessions. If users are focused, they hear calm and soothing winds while they meditate. If they become stressed or distracted, wind speed and intensity will increase.
Building a Better Brain
The future of wearable technology exists at the intersection of another intellectual effort — the quest to develop artificial neural networks capable of mimicking human mental frameworks. Work in both machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) has already produced substantive results with the creation of ML algorithms that can “learn” over time given a large enough data input, and AI tools that are very, very good at very specific tasks.
The challenge is matching the more generalized ability of human minds to connect multiple, loosely linked constructs into a cohesive whole. But the work on wearable devices designed to help manage mental stress and mitigate the risk of serious outcomes may offer a way to bridge the gap between artificial and biological systems at scale. For example, a device designed to help humans manage stress based on conditional self-reporting might be repurposed to evaluate the cognitive ability of AI tools. Rather than waiting for these neural networks to make an obvious mistake that requires human intervention, the application of mental health models could be used to proactively detect decision-making issues.
And this street runs both ways. As AI tools become more adept at categorizing and connecting the signs and symptoms of mental illness, the infrastructure of wearable devices will improve, paving the way for technologies capable of capturing and correlating individual behavior patterns. This can help wearables better detect signs of impending stress and offer users effective mitigation strategies ASAP.
Ultimately, work on wearables is about building better brains — both human and machine — to improve the efficacy and stability of both.
Are you interested in all things related to technology? We are, too. Check out Northrop Grumman career opportunities to see how you can participate in this fascinating time of discovery.