Linda Stone’s Antidote to Quantified Self: The Essential Self

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we typically go into this posture [at this point Stone slumped her body forward]. We are thinking hard. We lose our body when we are thinking hard, in most cases. When we are at a smartphone we’re curled up around the smartphone, rapidly texting or typing. So again we lose ourselves into our minds.

I ultimately named that e-mail apnea or screen apnea. I talked to a lot of people about what is physiologically happening when we’re breath-holding or shallow-breathing. And I became interested in heart rate variability technology, because it can give you a sense of how stressed when you are at the computer. So I would use a HeartMath emWave heart rate variability ear clip, or something called an autonomic biometer, and I would use those things to just visually track stress. They use light and visual indicators to indicate that you’re stressed or not stressed. I would be able to see that out of the corner of my eye while I was working, and it would remind me to get up.

As I looked further into this, the other thing that I learned is that when you are sitting for periods of time your body doesn’t pump lymph very effectively. People talk about how sitting is the new smoking. And people also separately talk about needing to do a lot of detoxing. Well, the body is perfectly capable of detoxing, but it requires us to move. In the lymphatic system, the pump is your muscles, the calves of your legs. When you’re sitting you’re blocking the inguinal canal, you’re blocking the cisterna chyli, which is a major lymph area in the chest, and your body doesn’t have the resources it needs to pump lymph.

So we’re holding our breath, going into a fight-or-flight state, not pumping lymph, and becoming impulsive and spinning around how much we have to do, and it takes us to this very stressed place. And then we add Quantified Self technology! Not only are we putting ourselves in this stressed state, but we have all kinds of devices that are tracking and measuring, and we have technology telling the mind to tell the body how to be a better body. And we haven’t resourced the body one lick through the whole thing.

WR: One response would be to pull back from all this technology and go off the grid.

LS: That is one response. But there is another way to think about this, which is, how do we come to a place of embodiment in our lives and in everything we do? So it’s not about what we’re disconnecting from, it’s about what we are connecting to.

I think there are multiple paths to embodiment and to meaning. We are also talking about happiness. And we’re using happiness trackers, for god’s sake. I think that the real conversation is about meaning; it’s not about happiness. Happiness is an outcome of meaning. But if you’re going to talk about happiness, the question is how are you happy, not are you happy. “Are you happy?” leads you into an existential abyss. “How are you happy?” takes you exactly to the present moment where I can look at you and say, “This water tastes great, it’s fun hanging out,” and I’m not comparing it to thousands of moments to see if I am truly going to get a point for happiness.

WR: Is there a technological answer to this technological problem of letting the mind dictate to the body?

LS: Well, there’s a technological answer and a non-technological answer. Because at the heart of it all is embodiment. Who is embodied today? Athletes. Test pilots. Performance musicians. Performance dancers. They know how to breathe, how to move, how to feel their bodies. And what are we removing from school curriculums so that we can get to the “core”? We are removing art and music and dance and things that we think are a decorative fringe on the curriculum. They are not—they are the things that make us human.

Technology today goes from the technology to the mind to the body, and the body is a sort of victim of the mind and the technology ganging up on it. And the opportunity is to look at technologies for embodiment. What might those be? Well, it turns out that pulse and vibration and music and light and weight and temperature are all technologies that contribute to a sense of embodiment. So there’s one technology that I really like called Focus@Will, where a composer and a neuroscientist tested music to see if they could find patterns that would support a sense of engaged attention. Engaged attention is usually also accompanied with a sense of embodiment, and they created Focus@Will, which is a subscription music service. JustGetFlux is another tool, which changes the brightness and color or your computer screen to support circadian rhythms.

There are technologies coming out that support breathing, but a lot of those are still mediated through the mind. They fall somewhere between quantified self and essential self. The technology that I think is really interesting for breathing is the one that you might have in a belt buckle or on your belly that syncs up with your breathing and then slows its breathing, so it’s all a sensed experience. MIT Media Lab graduate Kelly Dobson created something like that called OMO.

WR: I’m guessing that soon as the Apple iWatch comes out, there’s going to be a temptation on the part of developers to build a million new Quantified Self apps that are not going in the direction of embodiment, but in the direction of numbers and the mind.

LS: I think Quantified Self apps are great for people who are healthier, who want to push themselves to walk five more steps. But more and more we’re hearing about people who are in chronic pain or who are sick. People who are healthy can game up whatever they want to game up and they can count whatever they want to count— until they get sick and they can’t. It might happen from a bicycle accident or it might happen from flu or bronchitis or something that sets them aside. And the first thing that happens when a quantified person gets sick is this war. The war is: My mind was running things and … Next Page »

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The Author

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy.

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  • Steve Sisgold

    I really liked your article and your work is awesome. I wrote a book, “What’s Your Body Telling You? Great to find you. Steve Sisgold

  • LEE STEIN

    fantastic read and brilliant as always….

  • http://eric.jain.name/ Eric Jain

    Quantified Self isn’t meant to replace your senses; in fact QS tools are often used to help get a better sense of e.g. what your heartbeat feels like when you’re exercising in a certain zone, or to increase your awareness of your breathing or posture when necessary.

    Recording data is also useful to monitor long-term trends, something for which we have little sense, and for sharing our progress with a coach, or with friends, be it for advice or for motivation.