What do you think most stresses you out during the day? A new type of wearable stress sensor, which constantly checks for signs of anxiety, could give you a precise answer. And it might not be what you think.
That’s what I found when I tested the Q Sensor, a device made by Affectiva, a company based in Waltham, Massachusetts. It looks like a large digital watch with no readout. A button on its surface lights up in different colors to convey the level of battery charge. Two small silver electrodes on the underside of the device continually send out a low electric current to measure skin conductance. Skin conductance rises along with physiological levels of stress, including both excitement and fear.
Over the last year, the Q Sensor has been snapped up by researchers studying everything from sleep to game design, eating habits, and brand design. Scientists are using it to tailor new treatments for autistic children; others are planning studies to see if information about stress can help treat people with drug addictions or post-traumatic stress disorder. But anyone might benefit from the information the sensor provides. Knowing our daily state of stress could help us understand ourselves and our daily lives better. It might also, perhaps, help us de-stress more effectively.
“We know stress exacerbates medical conditions,” says Rosalind Picard, a professor of media arts and sciences at MIT and lead inventor of the Q Sensor. “Stress takes a huge toll on people’s health. It’s starting to be more biologically understood.”
As I wore the Q Sensor throughout the day, I took notes on moments that seemed particularly stressful or relaxing. I assumed a meeting would cause the highest level of stress, and lunch the lowest. At the end of the day, I went to Picard’s office at the MIT Media Lab to see my readout. She explained that the raw data can be hard to understand. A peak doesn’t necessarily indicate negative stress—it could reflect excitement or an artifact like a hot room. Indeed, there were some artifacts in my data—places where the stress line mysteriously drops suddenly and slowly builds back up. This usually occurs when the sensor is bumped accidentally, Picard explained: when the sensor moves slightly, it comes in contact with dry skin. Because skin conductance goes up with heat as well as stress, an accompanying temperature sensor helps identify artifacts of another kind. And an accelerometer keeps track of the wearer’s motion, to indicate, for example, if the person is biking or running.
I wore the sensor on my left, nondominant wrist, which Picard noted moved a lot during the day, probably when I was typing. There were small spikes of stress leading up to the afternoon meeting at which I had to present ideas in front of colleagues, but surprisingly, the largest spikes occurred when I was responding to a bevy of e-mails in the morning. Picard showed me a graph of her own data recording from the day she took her son to an amusement park. Her stress levels were high on the roller coasters—but they were even higher in the morning, when she was getting everyone organized.