The Measured Life

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Winni Wintermeyer / www.

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.

Over Memorial Day weekend, approximately 400 hackers, programmers, designers, engineers, and health care professionals gathered in the tech mecca of Mountain View, California, for the first annual Quantified Self conference. Attendees showed off fitness monitors, apps to gather data, and even a set of sticker sensors with embedded accelerometers–designed to be stuck on toothbrushes, water bottles, a dog’s leash–to detect movement.

Standing out in the crowd was Alex Gilman, a researcher at Fujitsu Laboratories of America, who ambled down the main hall with a bag slung over his shoulder. A tangle of wires sprouting from it led to monitors on different parts of his body: a white plastic ear clip, which measured his blood oxygen levels; a blood pressure cuff around his arm; and a combination heart rate monitor, EKG, temperature gauge, and accelerometer strapped to his chest. The bag itself held a prototype device designed to gather, synchronize, and analyze the data from all those sensors. The devices are a taste of the not-so-distant future, when the monitoring tools of an intensive care unit will be transformed into wearable gadgets that are effortless to use. Gilman’s chest strap is from Zephyr, a company that traditionally has made equipment to track the physiology of military and emergency workers in stressful situations. Zephyr is now developing simplified consumer versions of its products.

This new generation of devices can automatically send data to the wearer’s cell phone or computer. Compared with the limited snapshot of health that is captured during an annual visit to the doctor’s office, these tools could reveal someone’s health “in context, and with a much richer resolution,” says Paul Tarini, a senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which donated $64,000 to help the Quantified Self group create a guide to self-tracking tools.

Perhaps the most interesting consequences of the self-tracking movement will come when its adherents merge their findings into databases. The Zeo, for example, gives users the option of making anonymous data available for research; the result is a database larger than any other repository of information on sleep stages. Given that the vast majority of our knowledge about sleep comes from highly controlled studies, this type of database could help redefine healthy sleep behavior. “I have become skeptical of sleep science and clinical trials, so I am very interested in what individuals have to say,” says Bianchi, who is developing his own home sleep-tracking tool.

There are plenty of reasons to believe that people sharing data about themselves can produce powerful medical insights. In 2004 Alexandra Carmichael, a longtime migraine sufferer, identified dairy and gluten as the triggers for her headaches after extensively tracking her pain and correlating it with diet and other factors. Hoping to help others find relief from chronic pain, she founded CureTogether, a social-networking site where people can list their symptoms, the treatments they have tried, and the results they’ve observed. PatientsLikeMe, another social-networking site, has gathered a wealth of data on more than 105,000 members, some of whom have participated in a study of drugs used to treat ALS, often called Lou Gehrig’s disease.

The growing availability of new monitoring devices and the increasing sophistication of social networks promise that self-tracking will become increasingly influential. “We see the potential to change the power dynamics in health care,” says Tarini. People could take far more responsibility for monitoring their own health.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether a movement rooted in individual experimentation can scale up in ways that will affect public health. When you start with information from a study of one person, says Tarini, “the system doesn’t have a way of determining what should be explored further.” And because many of the new tools for tracking are aimed at consumers rather than the medical market, they have not undergone the rigorous testing required of medical devices. Still, Tarini is optimistic. “We have the opportunity to explore a whole new set of information,” he says. “That has the potential to teach us a lot about health care.”

The early adopters of self-tracking are often odd. In one breakout session at the May conference, a group earnestly discussed the results of their experiments. Standing on one leg for eight minutes a day helped one person sleep. Eating butter helped another think better. On the more pragmatic side of the movement, another group, made up mostly of entrepreneurs, discussed business models for selling self-tracking apps and devices.

The favored strategy is to weave together self-tracking tools with social networks and gaming, keeping users motivated enough to meet health goals they’ve set for themselves. Withings, a French company that makes wireless scales and blood pressure monitors, gives users the option of tweeting their weight, with the goal of adding social pressure to make people stick to a diet. And Green Goose, a  start-up that is developing sensor-equipped stickers for household objects, plans to create a game based on personal health goals, awarding points whenever the user walks the dog or takes vitamins.

As start-ups plot how to profit from the trend, the people behind the self-tracking movement have very different goals. “The most interesting tools are those that give us the chance to reflect on who we are,” says Quantified Self cofounder Gary Wolf. The problems self-tracking tries to solve, he says, are important to everyone’s life: “How to eat, how to sleep, how to learn, how to work, how to be happy.”

Emily Singer is Technology Review‘s senior editor for biomedicine. Excerpted from Technology Review (July-Aug. 2011), an authority on emerging technologies and their impact, published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Have something to say? Send a letter to This article first appeared in the November-December 2011 issue of Utne Reader.

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