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When And Where Do You Stress? Ambitious Project Aims To Map Daily Life, Whole City

Passengers squeeze aboard a Red Line train at the Porter Square MBTA station. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Passengers squeeze aboard a Red Line train at the Porter Square MBTA station. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

By Marina Renton
CommonHealth intern

Would I make it to the train station in time? Or would I miss my train home? The concern gnawed at me as I fidgeted on the uncomfortably warm and crowded subway platform. As I anxiously scanned the tracks for approaching lights, the watch on my wrist buzzed. It was telling me to check my stress levels. I pulled out my phone. High, it said — surprisingly high.

That may sound like the first draft of a science fiction novel but, in fact, it’s describing events from last month, when I tried out a watch that has sensors to measure the autonomic nervous system, which regulates our fight-or-flight response.

Neumitra, a Boston-based startup, developed the technology, and plans to launch an ambitious project this fall that would use it to chart the stress not just of individuals but of professions and institutions — even of a whole city. It may be a no-brainer that catching a train is stressful, but how does stress at Harvard compare to stress at Northeastern? North Shore to South Shore? Emergency room at Boston Medical Center to Massachusetts General Hospital?

“We’re using data from the body and data from mobile phones to understand how everyone is affected by stress,” said Rob Goldberg, co-founder of Neumitra and a neuroscientist formerly at MIT. “Our aim here is for thousands of people in Boston to be using these technologies, so we can understand the difference between a veteran, a police officer, a student, a mother, a nurse — and sometimes you belong to multiple of these categories, so what are the combined effects?”

Sync To See Your Stress

“I’m so stressed!” is a frequent response to the innocuous, “How are you?” The exclamation, or variations thereof, can be heard at the office, between classes, at home…practically anywhere.

But it’s one thing to verbally express feelings of stress, and quite another to quantify those sensations. That’s where Neumitra comes in.

You can track your stress level in real time through an app that displays the data that the watch collects. The app syncs with your calendar and GPS, so you can also look back to see which events and locations cause the most stress. When your stress spikes, the watch vibrates — an alert that it might be time to take a step back and recalibrate.

“We don’t understand what we’re all struggling with on a day-to-day basis.”

– Neumitra co-founder Rob Goldberg

The app displays stress using a color gradient: Blue means relaxed or restful, orange and red signify increasing tension. During my entire subway ride, I was either in the dark-orange or red zone. Once I was back home, I spent more time in the blue regions. Exercise brought me back into the orange (among other things, the watch measures skin conductance and temperature, so physical exertion can register as stress), but it didn’t exceed the stress I demonstrated while standing (read: trying not to fall on anyone) in a crowded subway car.

This technology is certainly fascinating, but does it really tell us anything we didn’t already know? Goldberg’s answer is an emphatic yes. “We think we [know how we feel], but we’re very detached from that,” he said.

Science At A New Scale

In this age of “smart” or “connected” everything, we’re getting used to devices that monitor us, but Goldberg says Neumitra’s plans for the technology’s use on a large scale might lead to a whole new understanding of the effects of daily life on stress. Continue reading