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Mapping The Most Stressful Places In Life To Figure Out How Stress Is Killing Us

A new wearable device aims to pinpoint exactly when and where our stress is ruining our lives.

Stress is bad for us. It’s bad for our long-term health and for our immediate functioning. When we’re stressed, we’re less creative, we make worse decisions, and our memories fail us.

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So, it makes sense for us to track our stress levels to discover what triggers our low-performance moments. It could help us to learn to control ourselves better and perhaps help design environments that are less stressful for everyone.

That’s the goal of Neumitra, a Massachusetts startup. It makes devices that measure the electrical properties of someone’s skin (their “galvanic response”) as a proxy for their brain health at any particular moment. Its biomodules take up to 50 readings a second then combine that with skin temperature and accelerometer data. It can plot the results against someone’s daily schedule or on a map of a city or company to understand stress-inducing activities or environments.

Cultura RM/Julian Love/Getty Images

“Effectively, what we’re measuring is the brain in the skin,” says co-founder Robert Goldberg. “What we’re sensing is mediated by the adrenal system. We release adrenaline in response to fears but also throughout the day.”

By documenting so much data, Neumitra can start to see patterns in our lives. So, for example, how did being stressed yesterday affect how well we slept last night? Or how did our night’s sleep affect us today? How did being stressed on the way home from work lead to that argument with our partner? And so on.

Neumitra recently received funding from The Thiel Foundation’s Breakout Labs, an incubator founded by the venture capitalist Peter Thiel. It currently sells a watch-like device plus an app to record the data and integrate it with an electronic calendar, but it’ll cost you a whopping $1,500. It’s also working on smaller modules that could be embedded into analog watches, bracelets, and jewelry, since not everyone wants to wear a dedicate watch.

The interesting thing is how the data could be used to manage our stress better. Goldberg gives an example from his own life. When he visits San Francisco and has to drive down to Silicon Valley, he can see that it’s more stressful for him to take Route 101 than 280. Similarly, he can see that staying in Half Moon Bay is worth the extra mileage because he’s less stressed than being in the city and he gets more work done. He can also see the stress-relieving properties of having a particular meal or listening to certain music. (In the maps in the slide show, you can see one of Goldberg’s trips. The red dots show the stress of going to SFO airport; the blue splotch shows the relief when he made it to In-N-Out Burger.)

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More broadly, it’s easy to see how Neumitra data could be used to improve building or city design. In the future, our living environments may undergo not just physical stress tests but also mental ones.

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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