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

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

The Quantified Self movement emerged in the late 2000s in response to an absence: the lack of useful data about our bodies as we move through the day. Before the QS era, an EKG could show you your heart rhythms; a lab analysis could show you your cholesterol levels; a treadmill stress test could measure your general fitness. But these tests were expensive, infrequently administered, and hard for non-physicians to interpret. The first generation of commercial QS technologies, from companies like Nike, Fitbit, Polar, and Garmin, were a big step forward because they started to put health and fitness data directly into the hands of consumers.

But the Quantified Self approach to health is also defined in large part by an absence—that is, by what it ignores. QS is all about sensors like scales and accelerometers. These sensors produce numbers; the numbers must be interpreted by your thinking brain; and only then can they inform decisions about your body. It’s all several steps removed from your lived experience.

To put it another way: a fitness-tracking watch can tell you how far you’ve walked today, but it can’t tell you how you feel. What if the self your devices are quantifying isn’t the same person who feels hungry or sated, energetic or tired, happy or sad? What if it isn’t your essential self? And why are we collecting all this data, anyway? Is it helping us bring meaning into our lives?

Those are the kinds of questions Linda Stone, one of the 19 original Xconomists, has been raising lately in a series of recent talks and Web posts. And it was the main theme on the table when I interviewed Stone over lunch last week in Kendall Square.

Sometimes our five old-fashioned senses are more helpful than any amount of data, Stone argues. On the lecture circuit and in pieces for outlets like the Huffington Post and O’Reilly Radar, she’s described the essential self as “that pure sense of presence”—what our bodies are telling us about our experience in the physical world right now, without displays and readouts and spreadsheets in the way. Stone isn’t necessarily saying that we should eject monitoring technology from the equation. She’s just asking what might happen if these technologies were redesigned to give us direct sensory feedback, in a way that might serve the essential self, or what she calls “embodiment.”

This turn to slightly squishy notions about presence and embodiment might at first seem surprising, coming from someone who’s long been one of the country’s leading thinkers about the relationship between humans and computers. After all, Stone spent seven and a half years working on multimedia technologies at Apple and eight and a half years at Microsoft Research studying virtual communities and computer-mediated social life; she’s best known for originating the concept of continuous partial attention, the technology-exacerbated pattern of being superficially attentive to many different inputs without fully alighting on any of them.

But once you learn a bit more about Stone’s recent experiences, it’s easier to see where her questions are coming from. In 2004, due to surgeries related to a jawbone infection, she was afflicted with trigeminal neuralgia, a form of facial pain said to be one of most excruciating conditions known to medicine. During this period, all of Stone’s former competence at self-tracking went out the window, she says. When the data is troubling and chronic pain is an issue, she found, streams of health data can be frustrating and overwhelming.

Stone says she realized that Quantified Self technology is designed for people who are already healthy, not for those who are trying to heal. It occurred to her she’d be better off if she stopped focusing on the data and did a better job of listening to her body, using breathing and meditation to manage the extreme pain.

“My mind couldn’t direct my body to get better,” Stone told an audience at the MIT Media Lab earlier this year. “My mind and body needed to be friends. They needed to be partners in health. There might be a way to contribute to that through technology, but Quantified Self technologies did not feel kind, and I wanted to do things for my body that were kind. ”

Any technology that proposes to connect us to our essential selves, Stone argues, should speak directly to our senses through sound, light, vibration, and other stimuli. As an example, she cites devices like the HeartMath emWave, a heart rate variability monitor that uses lights and computer graphics to help users control stress levels. Computer users can clip the emWave lead to an earlobe while they work, and use cues from the software to remember to take an occasional break to de-stress. “Rhythm, sound, music, vibration, pulsing—especially the rhythms of the body, including heartbeat, pulses, and breath rhythms—are likely the most powerful technologies to support us in embodiment,” Stone says.

While Stone’s ideas about the Essential Self are still at the early, theoretical stage—without scientific studies to back them up—she says her audiences are getting excited about the new apps and devices waiting to be built and the opportunities waiting to be explored. Ultimately, Stone says she’d like to see the Essential Self idea develop into a movement alongside the Quantified Self—not replacing it, but paralleling it. “The question is: in what context are the numbers more helpful than our senses?” she writes. “In what constructive ways can technology speak more directly to our bodymind and our senses?”

Prior to our lunch, I hadn’t seen Stone since 2004, when I attended a social computing symposium that she co-organized for Microsoft Research (years before “social media” became a commonplace concept). She still lives in the Seattle area, but she stopped in Kendall Square on her way to the Media Lab, where she’s on the advisory board. Below is an edited writeup of our conversation.

Wade Roush: Can you say a bit how your thinking about the “Essential Self” emerged from your own experiences with illness and recovery?

Linda Stone: What I realized was that I could heal when my mind and body were not at war. I started to think about if there were technologies for embodiment, what would there be?

But even before that, when I was in the midst of dealing with this bone infection, I was getting chronic respiratory infections, and my doctor suggested that I take a breathing class. So I went and worked with someone who taught something called Buteyko breathing. And I went home with the exercises and I would dutifully walk as far as I could every morning and then sit down and do the Buteyko breathing exercises. Then I’d go to the computer to respond to e-mail and do some writing, and I’d get to the computer and I’d realize that I wasn’t breathing—that I was shallow breathing or breath-holding, and that my posture had changed from a posture that would allow me to breathe, to a posture where I was absorbed by the computer.

I began to think of the computer as a prosthesis of mind. And I wanted it to be a prosthesis of being. I wanted to bring my full self to it, my breathing self—the part of me that can think clearly and is fully engaged, and not just the part of me from the neck up.

I wanted a different relationship with technology. So as I became aware that I was shallow-breathing or breath-holding when I was at the computer, I got very interested in why that was happening, and what I could do. But I also started observing and talking to a lot of other people, and informally talked to and observed over 200 people in a seven-month period. I also talked to researchers at NIH and physicians and body workers and all kinds of people. And what I learned is that first of all, once we are on a smartphone or at a computer, one of the things that happens is 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 that was working, so why is my body betraying me? I’m smart. I followed the rules on nutrition. I followed the rules on exercise. Why me? “Why me” doesn’t make for that peace between body and mind.

WR: Do you feel like your Essential Self theory is starting to resonate and perhaps inspiring people to build technologies and apps that would support embodiment?

LS: The message is so resonating. Every time I give a talk I get contacted, both by people who are doing Quantified Self technologies and who want to move toward Essential Self, and by people who want to talk about ideas for Essential Self technologies. People are realizing that counting is just another thing to do, and that where they feel soothed is by sensing and feeling. It’s why we end up sending cute cats to each other across the Internet. It’s soothing, it makes us happy, it feels good.

One of the things I learned as I researched attention is that attention, emotion, and breathing are very connected. If you are breathing in a relaxed way, you have an ability to use your attention exactly as you want to use it. Notice that a really good golfer is breathing. A good test pilot learns how to breathe to handle the G-forces. A good athlete can do that long-distance run because they know how to manage their breath and their emotion. Once you start holding your breath the stress starts.

So again, I think we need to change up the kind of questions that we’re asking ourselves. You know, it’s not “Do I want to be happy?” It’s “How am I happy?” And even more important, “Is there meaning in my life?” and “What moments feel meaningful?” It can be really little. It can be that you’ve said hello to a neighbor. Let’s talk about that, instead of talking about disconnecting and unplugging and distraction. Which is frankly a super stressful conversation, don’t you think?

WR: The idea of having to turn off or give up my devices is stress inducing all on its own. I feel like I need them to be as productive as I am.

LS: We have this naming, blaming game that goes on, with television and junk food, and now technology is the evil thing. But at the scene of the crime, the thing that’s in common is us. And so what is our opportunity? It’s to determine what we want to connect to. One of those things is coming back to embodiment. Coming to our senses, so to speak.

I guess the last piece of this is, in the same way that we have a physical homeostasis, we have a spiritual homeostasis, both individually and collectively. When we move so far away from where we are comfortable with who we are as human beings, we are drawn to what soothes us and makes us more comfortable. And there are four dominant collective activities that I see that are very soothing and that are bringing us right back.

First, the move toward yoga and meditation. Second, the maker movement, which is almost like a meditation movement—it brings us to our own creativity and resources with a kind of relaxed, engaged attention that is like children at play. Third, the urban gardening movement. Fourth, the movement toward joyful dance as exercise, from African Dance to Zumba to Nia to Continuum. Dance and rhythm are among the most powerful ways for us to re-set our individual and collective nervous system; this is a really powerful trend that contributes to our collective health and well being. I think these four things are all the same thing, and they’re all returning us to this spiritual homeostasis.

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.