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Humans and technology

This man’s quest to understand memory starts with obsessive bodycam recording and brain-wave tracking

By-products include striking short films that speed up and slow down along in response to body signals.
July 17, 2018
Hannah Campbell | Youtube

Mostafa “Neo” Mohsenvand often walks around with a fisheye lens on a smartphone strapped to his chest and a black, electrode-covered neoprene EEG cap on his head. All, mind you, for science.

Mohsenvand, a graduate student in the Fluid Interfaces Group at MIT’s Media Lab, is trying to learn about what makes moments memorable by zealously gathering as much data as possible about himself and the world around him, and matching up his biometric signals with times and events.

Since January, Mohsenvand has been wearing the camera and a black physiological signal-tracking band strapped to his left wrist, generally for three to 16 hours a day. In June he also added the mobile EEG headset in order to gather brain-wave data while on the go.

So far, he’s logged over 1,500 hours of footage. Every few days he uses software to combine the videos and biometric signals, creating minutes-long films that slow down and speed up in accordance with metrics like the acceleration and deceleration of his heart rate and his level of skin conductance—things he can’t consciously control, and that he believes correspond with the noteworthiness of events in his life.

“I can take a whole day, squeeze it into five minutes, and watch it,” he explains.

The resulting films—he’s made about 300 so far, some of individual days and some of three to four days combined—are fascinating to watch, even when they just record the minutiae of everyday life. In one, which compresses 40 minutes of real time into two minutes, there are sped-up snippets of him (off camera, of course) walking with his girlfriend, Hannah Campbell, and then slower shots of him standing alone at a train station. In another, they bike around town at lightning speed, but then he plays guitar at home and the music wobbles and decelerates.

One clip is simply a two-minute condensation of how his heart rate varied while he watched the movie Whiplash (the film is about a teen drumming prodigy and his abusive music teacher; even if you haven’t seen it, you may guess by the title that it’s a fast-paced film). The drumming sequences fly by too fast to distinguish individual notes, but the film slackens in a few key spots, mostly involving the music teacher (played by J.K. Simmons), such as one where he tells the drummer (Miles Teller), “You earned the part.”

“I’m sensitive to father-son relationships, it turns out,” Mohsenvand says, noting how his heart rate sped up during interactions between the movie’s main character, Andrew, and his father.

He’s learned a number of other things from collecting, summarizing, and re-watching his daily life. For instance, he says, he never realized how nice people are to him until he watched a day’s worth of footage and saw that nearly every person he encountered at the Media Lab asked how he was doing.

He’s used the data he’s collecting to find ways to be kinder to others, too. He wasn’t paying much attention during a conversation with his roommate about an upcoming calculus exam the roommate was studying for. But after watching the chat later on, Mohsenvand texted him to see if he wanted help cramming.

Mohsenvand does have some ground rules for recording. When he uses the bathroom, he covers the camera lens or tilts it upwards to show his face. (He doesn’t fully stop recording, though, because he wants to measure any physiological changes when he’s relieving himself. He says the most noticeable one is that his heart rate tends to go down.)

Another rule? No recording while having sex. Mohsenvand says this was a choice he and his girlfriend made at the start of the project because they were concerned that this kind of footage—stored remotely in a password-protected Dropbox account—could eventually be stolen.

To stem privacy concerns for bystanders, he explains his recording and the reasoning behind it when he enters, say, an elevator or a room full of people. The recording app he built for the Pixel 2 smartphone on his chest announces out loud when he starts or stops recording, and he says that if someone doesn’t want to be captured, he pauses the recording.

Heather Abercrombie, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin—Madison who heads the school’s Mood and Memory Laboratory, says scientists tend to capture data from groups of people rather than looking at them as individuals. But since people are bound to have different physiological reactions to different situations, Mohsenvand’s one-person life logging could be useful.

“If we can capture, across time, what’s different about individuals, that’s actually great,” she says.

Yet while Mohsenvand is paying attention to signals such as how quickly his heart rate increases, Abercrombie’s research into men  and memory suggests that he may be looking at the wrong signal. According to her work, your heart rate actually slows down for about a half a second when something noteworthy happens—when you get an unexpected phone call, for example, or spot someone familiar in a crowd—and then returns to normal.

Abercrombie also thinks it will be tricky for Mohsenvand to get much useful data from the EEG cap, since simply blinking while collecting EEG data causes signal interference. (Mohsenvand says blinking only affects a few of the EEG headset's 32 channels.)

And, nevertheless, Mohsenvand is committed to this experiment. He’s planning to keep the cap on for about nine hours per day (its maximum battery life) over the course of the next year, along with the rest of the gear he’s using.

After the year is up, I ask, does he plan to stop filming?

No way.

“I’ll be doing this probably until I die,” he says.

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