The Measured Life

Vital self-tracking devices promise to make us healthier (and more self-obsessed)


| November-December 2011



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Winni Wintermeyer / www. 3am.net

On a quiet Wednesday night in April, an unusual group has assembled in a garage nestled in a student-dominated neighborhood outside Boston. Those gathered here—mostly in their 20s or 30s and mostly male—are united by a deep interest in themselves. They have come to share the results of their latest self-experiments: monthlong tests of the Zeo, a device designed to analyze sleep.

The group is part of a rapidly growing movement of fitness buffs, techno-geeks, and people with chronic conditions who obsessively monitor various personal metrics. At the center of the movement is a loosely organized group known as the Quantified Self, whose members are driven by the idea that collecting detailed data can help them make better choices about their health and behavior. In meetings held all over the world, self-trackers discuss how they use a combination of spreadsheets, smartphone apps, and various devices to monitor patterns of food intake, sleep, fatigue, mood, and heart rate.

Self-tracking is not new. Many athletes and people with chronic conditions have meticulously monitored personal metrics for decades. But new tools have made self-tracking both simpler and more rigorous, generating reams of data that can be scrutinized for patterns and clues. The new devices, along with the increasing ease of sharing data through social-networking sites, mean that more and more people are finding it useful to quantify their lives.

The $199 Zeo makes it simple for users to track their sleep cycles. A headband with a fabric sensor wirelessly transmits EEG data to a bedside monitor. A programmable alarm clock wakes the wearer at the optimal sleep phase. And the data can be uploaded to a computer, where users can study how their sleep is affected by environmental factors such as weather and light.

Sanjiv Shah, a longtime insomniac who participates in the Boston group, believes that wearing orange-tinted glasses for several hours before bed makes it easier for him to fall asleep. (The theory is that the orange tint blocks blue light, which has been shown in both human and animal studies to influence circadian rhythms.) To quantify the effects, he used not only the Zeo but also a thumb-size device called the Fitbit, which measures movement, and a camera trained on his bed to record his sleep for a month. His results: Without the glasses, he took an average of 28 minutes to fall asleep; with them he took only 4.

The experiment has an obvious flaw: Shah knows when he is wearing the glasses, so the placebo effect could be responsible for their success. Matt Bianchi, a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, says no large-scale studies have shown that orange glasses improve sleep. But self-trackers say reproducing the results in scientific tests misses the point. The glasses clearly work for Shah. And an eight-dollar pair of plastic glasses is certainly preferable to a prescription for sleeping pills.

gwynn o'neill
12/16/2011 10:08:51 PM

What these people are doing is experimenting; that is an inherent part of science - though of course alot of it here is sloppy science, and not that useful - except as an indication of what direction a non-sloppy approach could take .