Last week, in a converted garage in Somerville, Massachusetts, a group of about 30 eager experimentalists and curious insomniacs gathered to share the results of their latest investigations. Several members of the group had spent the month of March using a consumer device known as the Zeo to track their sleep patterns and observe how the patterns change with different factors, including weather, color of ambient light, and location. While the individual results aren’t going to change our notions of sleep, the overall trend of self-experimentation just might.
The Boston-based group is part of a nationwide movement known as Quantified Self, a collection of people who employ the growing numbers of sensors, trackers, and data analysis tools to monitor intimate details of their lives. While more-traditional scientists may argue about the objective value of an experiment with an N of 1, quantified selfers, as they call themselves, say that is beside the point. They are investigating how various physical variables affect the quality of their lives in the most rigorous way possible.
Physical activity, heart rate, and nutrition are the most commonly tracked personal metrics, but new tools that are gradually moving from medicine into the consumer world have opened additional vistas in personal exploration. Zeo’s sleep monitor, a consumer device that costs $199, uses a single sensor worn on the forehead to track electrical activity; specialized algorithms determine whether the wearer is awake or in deep, light, or REM sleep, as well as how many times she or he wakes and total duration of sleep. (Topics for future meetings include blood glucose monitoring and perhaps even personal genomics.)
While Zeo’s developers originally envisioned the device as an alarm clock to wake users in their lightest phase of sleep, the company quickly realized that people are fascinated by all aspects of slumber; we spend one-third of our lives asleep, and many people are desperate either to get more of it or to function better on less. But it’s a state that has been difficult to self-monitor. “People are really curious about sleep,” says Stephan Fabregas, a research scientist at Zeo who spoke at the meeting. “They want to know if they are normal and, if not, what they should do about it.”
Zeo lent the group a number of devices for a month to see what kind of experiments members would come up with. Jacqueline Thong, a self-described “good sleeper,” found she slept equally well in her bed, on her couch, and on the floor, prompting her to question the value of her expensive mattress. Adriel Irons, who claims to be able to predict the weather, was unable to link his sleep quality to local weather patterns.