In this age of the quantified self, a lot of attention has been paid to wearable technologies. From Pebble and Misfit Shine to FitBit and Jawbone Up, wearable devices can track every aspect of our bodies. The quantified self movement isn’t just for fun; a detailed, specific understanding of our own metrics, from how many steps we take to how much we sleep we get, is helping to encourage positive behavioral shifts.
However, in spite of public enthusiasm for activity trackers that measure our bodies, much less attention is being paid to tracking our brains. If wearable technology can track our physical health, why can’t it help us track our mental heath?
Tan Le is helping to answer that question. Le is founder of Emotiv Inc,a company that is developing affordable, consumer grade, wearable EEG (electroencephalogram) headpieces, or, as the company calls them, "brainwear." Emotiv has already spent years successfully producing the EPOC, an EEG-fueled headpiece that provides scientific contextualized EEG and also allows users to control objects with their minds.
Now Le is using that same technology to help unlock people’s brains.
Tan Le with the Emotiv Insight
The Emotiv Insight is a sleek, kickstarter-funded consumer EEG headpiece. Set to come out later this year, the Insight will be able to help track mental health and cognitive fitness. To get an idea of what this might mean in the mental health arena, think about the following: currently EEG’s are taken when there is already something wrong – after a traumatic brain injury, for example. But by taking a baseline of a person’s normal cognitive function, the Emotiv Insight will make it easier for average people to be able to evaluate deviation from the norm. Emotiv Insight will allow users to optimize their brain fitness and performance, measure and monitor their own cognitive health & wellbeing. Using a framework based on well-understood core principles of brain health, the Emotiv Insight can measure how your brain stacks up in each of the core areas necessary for optimum cognitive performance. The Insight can measure, track and help users improve their attention, focus, engagement, interest, excitement, affinity, and relaxation. It can also be used to help reduce stress levels.
It doesn’t seem that hard for the average brain to hit all five of those points on a daily basis. However, Le points out that in our busy, multitasking, high-pressure lives, people tend to neglect certain areas of cognitive function. For example, an executive may feel extremely challenged with a diverse array of tasks and cognitive functions, but may be lacking in novelty, physical exercise, or restorative sleep. With wearables like the Emotiv Insight, users will be able to measure and monitor their cognitive health and wellbeing, and optimize their brain fitness and performance. Using the Emotiv Insight companion app, users will be able to set specific challenges for themselves in order to develop those parts of their brain that may be underutilized.
The short-term benefits of ensuring optimal cognitive performance are obvious – we will do better at work. But the long-term benefits are just as critical. The reason it’s so important to tend to all five areas is simple: we’re living longer. Just as our retirement funds are going to have to stretch longer into the future, so our cognitive “bank” needs to be as full as possible in order to extend with us into old age.
As mentioned above, the Emotiv Insight will not just track productivity-based cognitive performance. It can also be applied to mental health. Currently, EEG machines are ugly, cumbersome and prohibitively expensive, starting in the thousands of dollars. But if everyday consumers had easy access to EEGs, it could potentially unlock a great deal of knowledge, not just for individuals, but also for society. Inexpensive, comfortable, consumer-grade EEG headpieces could help everyone from toddlers with cerebral palsy and adults with epilepsy to elderly people with cognitive dysfunction.
For example, a population that Le believes could benefit from widely available consumer EEG technology would be children with ADHD. Over prescription of medication for ADHD has long been suspected to be rampant in the US. But last summer the FDA approved marketing “the first medical device based on brain function to help assess attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children and adolescents 6 to 17 years old.” The device, which is based on EEG technology, can greatly aid with accurate diagnosis and prevent potentially unnecessary medication by reading the beta and theta waves characteristic of children with ADHD.
As Le said, widely available consumer EEG technologies like the Emotiv Insight will mean that, “a new horizon is going to open up and enable us to make better decisions” to improve performance and maintain lifelong brain health. And that’s good news.