This week on Mindful Cyborgs Chris Dancy and I discussed the relationship between mindfulness and quantified self with biosensor engineer Nancy Dougherty. Nancy talks about how she came to the practice of mindfulness through some of her “happy pills experiment,” her light-based mood tracking system and why a portable fMRI might be a little over kill for self-tracking.

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You can also read more notes and the full transcript inside.

Mindful Cyborg

See also: Nancy’s keynote at Quantifies Self Conference 2012



Electromyography- is a technique for evaluating and recording the electrical activity produced by skeletal muscles.





CD:      Welcome to Mindful Cyborgs, Episode number four. Four is a magical number. Hi, Klint. How are you?


KF:       Hi, I’m good.


CD:      Good, good. A lot of feedback from the Nathan Jurgenson show. I don’t think we could top that, but I think we’re going to. What do you think?


KF:       I think so. I mean, we’re just getting started.


CD:      I think we’re just getting warmed up. So Klint, for me, this journey, with mindfulness and technology and everything, really started with Amber Case a few years ago when I saw her. But I’d have to say there was one moment, if I could say there was a catalyzing moment in my journey in studying all of these things, present shock and quantified domain, it was really when I was at the Quantified Self Conference last year, in Palo Alto at Stanford.


And there was a keynote by a young lady with the name of Nancy Dougherty. She got up on stage and she started presenting, talking about mindfulness and technology, and she was covered in lights and these lights would literally change colors as she spoke.


At that point, I realized that she was augmented in such a way that I could see her emote. I didn’t have to worry about mis-perceiving, or “did she say that?” or “did I eat something and now I’m kind of over-analyzing stuff?” I thought, wow, this is really interesting – she’s representing herself in such a unique way. It was a dream of mine to someday actually meet her, but there were so many people mobbing her I couldn’t do. But, today, we are joined by Nancy Dougherty, who is a sensor designer for mindfulness. Hi, Nancy.


ND:      Hello! Thank you so much for having me.


CD:      Thank you. Nancy, can you tell us a little bit about maybe the Quantified Self Conference last year that I saw you at, and your presentation and what made you pick that topic and share with us a little bit from that?


ND:      Sure. I am a hardware designer by training so I’ve always been really interested in electronics and technology and, particularly, sensors. I really like building things to tell us new things about ourselves and our environment. But, I guess, what really created my quantified self presentation last year is my interest in mindfulness on top of that, and the way it had gotten to that was I kind of started to feel, I guess, almost victimized with my lack of understanding about myself. I’m having a lot of trouble understanding and controlling emotions, hormones, really figuring out discrepancies between what I wanted in life and what I wanted to be, and then the actions of what I was doing.


What created the device I added to that presentation was an idea that I wanted to be able to interact in a more engaging way with people to create more positive emotions in my interactions. I thought it would really help me pay more attention to the present and how I was feeling. So I built a little EMG sensor, electromyography and put it up by my jaw muscles. What that does is it basically monitors the activation of the muscles in my face and it would trigger an alert whenever I smile which would make the lights shine up in different patterns. It was a little bit whimsical and fun, but it would also track my smiles so I could see how happy I was and at what times. It would engage other people with my emotions that kind of drew attention to them in a way that I couldn’t ignore because other people thought too.


That was my presentation was about last year, trying to kind of amplify my own emotions and present them in a clear way to other people, to help me understand myself and engage with other people in a more meaningful way.


KF:       Were you also logging the smiles? Like, did you keep a log of how many times you smiled per day, or was this just something that happened in real time?


ND:      There was a log of duration of smiles in through day, so basically how much in a day I spent smiling. While I was wearing this, there was a very, very high amount – it inspired a lot of smiles.


KF:       Are you still wearing it?


ND:      I haven’t been wearing it recently. It was a short-term project mostly because the form factor was not ideal. At some point I’m going to redesign it for dry electrodes instead of sticky electrodes, and then maybe a more subtle or wearable display. But it was kind of a short-term thing just to experiment with how other people would respond to something like this and how it would impact my own emotions.


KF:       You mentioned in the talk that you didn’t start out as someone who thought herself as being into mindfulness and you came at it from the QS perspective, the quantified self perspective, and that you ended up becoming interested in mindfulness and seeing a connection between those two fields. Could you talk a little bit about how you got interested in mindfulness?


ND:      Sure, absolutely. It did start with kind of the technological side, the crazy technical problems of QS, like how you can monitor things or what you can monitor. So I started a couple of years ago doing lots of monitoring. I was using a Withings scale, FitBit. After a while I used the FuelBand, BodyMedia – all sorts of these different trackers – and basically trying to create a map of my activities. I guess that’s the idea of QS that doesn’t always have a clear path to this idea that we’ll track these things and then we’ll be better people, and there’s this question mark in the middle that I kind of hoped I would figure out along the way. I did a lot of tracking. I also worked with a company that was doing biometric monitoring as well, so I had access to some other sensors that I was experimenting with.


The more I would track things like steps, activities, and sleeping, the more I found that it wasn’t really doing anything for me. Like, I got some interesting information and I could run some short-term experiments, but none of it was really changing how I behave or who I was, or effecting my overall happiness. So what led mindfulness is trying to figure out how to make technology actually change us, because it doesn’t really do it on its own.


I started with the fact that when I was tracking I was more on top of things, I was able to be a little bit healthier, a little bit more active, but those are things I needed to work on since I was already pretty active. I got into to this idea of tracking things that I really wanted to change and make better. I started mood tracking for a while and that I did through a little experiment when I was working at Proteus Digital Health at the time and we made tiny microchips that you can embed on medications. When you take them they send out a little signal and timestamp when you took the medication.


When I did track my emotions I was able to take little pills with antidotes to negative emotions, like willpower, focus and happiness. Whenever I felt a negative emotion, I would take one of these pills, to timestamp and track it, but also to kind of have a little ritual that this is what I do when I’m feeling bad to make myself feel better.


CD:      Jack Daniels should do that with their booze, just put something in certain styles of Jack Daniels. So Jack Daniels 41 is for happy and literally just track the entire mood of a bar.


ND:      *laughts* There’s definitely a lot of happy juice in bars.


CD:      Definetly. I really enjoyed your research around it because I saw that presentation around the happy pills, and I read about you and the happy pills.


When it comes to mindfulness, can you tell us a little bit about… did that lead you to be more mindful? Did the act of taking the pill allow you to reset yourself for just a moment to understand, okay, it’s the worried pill or it’s the happy pill? Or, at some point, when you stopped taking the pills, were you cognizant “Oh, it would be time to take the pill right now.” I mean, how did the two end up leading together?


ND:      I think it kind of nice to have the action of pill taking at first because what it really gave me was sense of not only mindfulness, not just thinking about this is what I’m feeling right now, but also a sense of empowerment, kind of ritualistic reminder that I’m not a victim of this emotion. It’s something that I can control. It’s something that I can fix. Taking the pill is the universal human symbol of “this is going to be fixed.” And it was that sense of empowerment that actually really led me deeper into mindfulness, and not just for emotions, not just for body tracking, but all through life it’s the sense of empowerment over things that really lets us change things to become better. And when we slip is when we feel victimized, when we don’t have control.


Starting this mood tracking experiment kind of led me down that path of what we really need to do to change ourselves is create more of a sense of transparency and understanding so that we can have that sense of control. Again, I did this for a couple of weeks and then after that I still felt like I didn’t need to take the pill at that point to remember that feeling of this is something that I’m in control of, it’s not something that I can’t understand, it’s not something that I can’t fix. These emotions, the way I feel, is something that it’s happening in the moment of something that I can change. So that was my little shortcut into mindfulness through technology.


KF:       When did you start thinking about what you were doing as a mindfulness practice? Did you have some friends that were interested in mindfulness? I mean, when did you kind of say, “Aha, this is actually connected to this other idea?”


ND:      It was actually during that experiment. They ran another experiment ran kind of explicitly around mindfulness. But instead of using technology, they gave people little Tictacs that were labeled willpower and had people take them in the morning depending on how much willpower they thought they would need throughout the day. That was kind of designed around the mindful thing – in the morning, sitting down, thinking about what’s going on, taking a moment to collect your thoughts. And that was kind of where the word got attached to it and where I started to get really interested in that path.


CD:      How many years would you say you’ve been practicing mindfulness now?


ND:      Probably about a year, a year and a half, and I practice them to be somewhat sporadic and non-traditional. I still haven’t really mastered the sitting down and meditating thing.


CD:      Someone said to me last year you should meditate one hour a day and I said, “I do, I just do it over 24 hours.” For me, mindfulness, Klint, someone said to me after the Nathan show, “You guys actually should talk about mindfulness on your show.” And for me, it really became as simple as “I’m okay being here right now with you guys and I have an inner dialogue going on and that’s okay.” At night, when I lay my head down to sleep and I’ve got a million thoughts running through my head, because I’m okay with them and I’m there with them, I forward to sleep. Whereas I used to struggle with falling asleep or struggle with paying attention or a lot of other rather simple things. And what I find is, the more I just allow myself to be, this is going to sound kind of hokey kind to my thoughts, the more I just instantly fall into mindful states.


ND:      I totally agree with that. It’s about self-understanding and self-acceptance, not letting things grow into something bigger than what they are.


CD:      I like that. Klint, for you, you’ve had some interests in mindfulness – sometimes you and I talk privately – what types of things do you find are important to you around the concepts in mindfulness, or in your own life?


KF:       I actually do seated meditation. I try to every day, but I obviously don’t make it every single day. But I don’t think that’s necessarily what everyone needs to do in order to meditate. I mean, there are lots of different types of meditation, but I do find that that helps me a lot. If I can do it early in the day, it helps me stay focused the rest of the day. But, I mean, just in a broader sense what it’s about is just, as both have said, paying attention and trying to understand… Actually, really, even trying to understand is almost going overboard because you can’t really understand yourself. There are lots of things you can never truly understand, so I think there’s actually an element of just letting go.


CD:      Exactly.


KF:       And just accepting, and observing.


CD:      It’s so funny because on the show I guess there’s a certain amount of transparency, but I’d like to just share something with you both and I guess with anybody who listens to the show. One of the things I found in my three-year journey, because I’m really new into this, is that I – because I’m aware of myself – sometimes feel really lonely because I’ll be with other people who I feel in some ways have checked out of life. And I think Nathan Jurgenson would be an interesting person to ask about this. But I need a lot of people who I’m completely present with, who either don’t ask me to repeat myself or it’s just obvious they’re in another world.


I don’t want to say technology has made this worse or better, but I do struggle with a lot of loneliness which kind of pushes me further into the mindfulness, which becomes these paradoxical situations, like I can’t or I don’t have to be more kind to myself then I become more lonely. Nancy – or Klint – do you guys ever feel that you’re dealing with people who might have left the building years ago?


KF:       I don’t know. I think I’m kind of one of those people… I have a lot of trouble staying present that’s why I do this job. But, I mean, yes, definitely the reason I brought up people spending too much time on their phones in physical proximity of each other but not actually present was that I experienced that a lot. Either I catch myself doing it or people I’m with are doing it. There are things that Nathan said last week that I don’t necessarily agree with.


I guess, I would agree that when you’re doing that sort of thing you’re being an asshole, but you’re not. That doesn’t necessarily make somebody an asshole. It doesn’t mean that you were that person like each other any less. It just means you’ve lost a lot of discipline. I don’t know how much that has to do with technology. Like I mentioned, when we talked about Paul Miller and his experience of his internet fast, these are problems that have been around since ancient times.


CD:      I find that it’s almost like being connected online. I don’t follow a lot of people or I don’t friend a lot of people, I’m very private. But, the people I do friend, they’ve got my attention and it’s like that’s the only resource I have that I can offer to people. I can offer you my full attention and possibly a little bit of trust. But after that all bets are off and I think that, for me, I find that to be the biggest struggle of my life.


ND:      I just find the opposite. I feel that having a technological way to relate and communicate with people helps me to kind of enrich our relationships more. It might be because I’m a person who gets a little bit nervous around people, I have trouble reading faces and interacting with people really seamlessly. But having, I guess, another plane on which to share information, to be able to have an asynchronous stream of communication through texting or email, or posts. Perhaps it does atrophy some sort of in-person communication abilities but it also adds a different enriching layer of communication. So it’s kind of a lot of technologies when we give over part of ourselves and that technology takes part of our responsibility in a way we might lose some skills, like being able to navigate with a physical map. But, it also creates new ways for us to get through life.


KF:       I think that email or instant messages or text messages can be great forms of communication between two people, but what concerns me is the state they call continuous partial attention,  you’re spending time not truly paying attention to any one thing for very long because you’re multitasking which is kind of misnomer to what you’re really doing. It’s just switching your attention rapidly from one thing to another.


CD:      Nancy you talked about the idea of having another plane, a technology plane, in which you and someone else inhabited. Am I paraphrasing that correctly or can you explain to me correctly this concept of another plane?


ND:      I tend to think of it in terms of communication protocols and that we have a face to face communication, but now we have other channels with different protocols on, the frequency of interaction, the investment required for an interaction, the speed. I’ve had very meaningful conversations through technology with people where I can kind of disconnect and think about things for a while, collect my thoughts and then communicate back to them rather than face to face which sometimes can be less rich because of the demands of being able to instantaneously communicate back and forth.


CD:      Yes, I’ve had a lot of people who actually told me, “Chris, this comes easy to you because you’re an extrovert.” But I think if I would actually study parts of my life, I’m very introverted. I’m extroverted because I was conditioned to survive, not because I choose to be. You could probably argue that. But I asked about that because I just got a Romo, which is a robot thing that you plug your phone into, and one of the pieces of data that it captures is its activity. So it’s running around your house, taking pictures and messing with the animals and all sorts of stuff. It’s also tracking how busy it is, literally like a FitBit.


I created this image last year of my physical activity and then my dog wears a tag tracker which shows me his physical activity. But now I have my robot’s physical activity and a picture of my robot on the same slide that I created. It’s really interesting because I kind of realized this week that my technology, my dog and I, all share a similar plane where we at least share the collection of our data in some way that you could start to draw some parallels, so I wasn’t sure you’re also going down a metaphysical road with plane or actually talking about communication protocols. But either way is interesting. Should we do some news?


KF:       Sure.


CD:      Nancy, as a sensor designer for mindfulness, I read a story in IndustryTrap this week that the headline was “One trillion sensors embedded in humans and in machines by 2020.” Is that a FUD line or is that realistic and what are the implications of one trillion sensors in human to machines by 2020?


ND:      I think it’s fantastic and definitely happening. I mean, there are types of sensors all over the place and the technological landscapes of things are cheap, low-cost, continuously communicating sensors for presence, temperature, air quality, biometrics, everything you could want to track. I’ve always found that really interesting, like what we will do when things that we’ve always needed to pay attention to will be monitored by something else.


There was actually an article saying the act of paying attention to things, like the act of recording things, environment or biometrics is actually what creates the mindfulness. And when we start automating all of these collection processes we might lose the benefits of it. And it’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about because, for me, passive tracking is the goal. I’m curious to see what comes out of it.


CD:      Klint, got any stories for me or comment on what a world with a trillion sensors looks like?


KF:       I’ll wait and see what happens. For stories this week, the MIT Tech Review ran a story about a doctor who’s doing some pretty extreme quantification in that he’s using some of the usual stuff he didn’t specify which tools or mood tracking, activity tracking, calorie counting – all of that stuff. But he’s also getting his brain scanned twice a week and getting a blood drawn once a week. He has access to this equipment, but he still has to pay for it out of pocket so he’s doing MRI twice a week, sticking his head in a giant machine or whatever, and getting all this data.


What he’s trying to do is get some information about how much our brain networks actually change over the course of a week, as well as some hormone level type of stuff in the blood. I thought that was interesting to compare with what Nancy is doing because they both involve getting some more, I guess, biologically objective information about what’s going on and correlating that to mood and some of those more subjective pieces of information.


CD:      Nancy, as a sensor designer, based on that story that Klint just talked about, what is the viability in my lifetime or let’s just say the next 20 years that we would have a device as accurate or more accurate as a functional MRI that we could wear full time?


ND:      Those are fairly complicated, and a lot of people have made plays for consumerized versions of brain scanning, usually around EEGs. There are a couple out there doing that like Neurosky and Emotiv. I think it really comes down to, well all of engineering the way I see it is “what is the easiest way to get a metric for a proxy for what you are looking for?” So, having a portable fMRI sounds very, very difficult but other things like monitoring other aspects of biometrics that might give you good proxies for your brain activity is doing, what your body is doing, what your hormone levels are, all of that I think is likely to be happening a lot. In fact we’re getting surface biometric sensors to get a little bit of information, but a lot of people are working on things that go deeper to give you more relevant information. And, yes, that’s what we’ll be seeing a lot more in the next probably two to five years.


CD:      I thought the idea of Google Glass that used that bone conductivity in some way to replicate something, I appreciate you saying that functional MRI might be too much, but I enjoy the idea of it and all the videos and all those things that are brought about functional MRIs … To me, just like staring at a mirror at yourself or looking how many Facebook likes you have, if I had access to see my brain in a functional MRI state, I wouldn’t leave the house.


ND:      It would be really cool, wouldn’t it? If we could have those hand held, I would definitely get one.


CD:      I don’t think we’ve got to worry about Facebook distracting us. We need to worry about functional MRI app because you wouldn’t get out of bed, you would just lay there and watch yourself dream. That’s kind of crazy.


Nancy, any place we can find you over the next few months? Are you speaking anywhere? Have you got any conferences? How can people find you? How can they reach out to you? All that kind of good stuff.


ND:      I’m at an early stage startup right now actually working on a new type of sensor so I’m pretty heads down on that right now. But I’m in San Francisco. My website is You can find me on Twitter. Feel free to send me email. I’ll be mostly in the Bay Area for a while, I’m always happy to talk to people and hear about anything.


CD:      Fantastic. And you’re @NancyHD on Twitter. Klint, you’re heading out, we’ve got some events coming up. Actually today and tomorrow we’ve got the National Day of Civic Hacking, which is Hack for Change! It will be over by the time this show comes out, but there’s a Twitter archive of that for taking civic data stats and allowing people to hack them. And then you’re at BDigital Global Congress and where is that?


KF:       That’s in Barcelona, I don’t know if we’ll have the podcast up by then either but I’m speaking on June 12 there about quantified work.


CD:      Yes, the podcast will be live by the time you’re there. And then, of course, I’m coming back to New York. I don’t know if you guys have heard about this Russian billionaire who wants to build avatars, but it’s called Global Future 2045. It’s in New York City at the Lincoln Center, June 15 and 16. Of course, we’ve got Buddhist Geeks in Boulder, August 16 and 19. And then, I think we could see Nathan at the American Psychological Society in August, he said. Nancy, thank you so much for being with us today. It was such a pleasure.


ND:      Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a lot of fun.


CD:      Klint, as always, it’s so great to have you to help me out with this because I don’t think it would be possible without someone like you.


KF:       Always a pleasure.


CD:      Big shoutout to our media mixing, which BrownHoundMedia, Ross Nelson, and the Mindful Cyborg’s art. Nancy, have you seen our art?


ND:      Is it the icon for the show?


CD:      Yes, yes.


ND:      Oh, it’s fantastic.


CD:      Thank you. Big shoutout to Aaron Jasinski for designing that. Thanks everybody and we’ll see you at Episode 5 hopefully (drumroll) with Ernesto Ramirez, the founder of Quantified Self. So, talk to everybody in two weeks. Thanks so much.


KF:       Bye, everybody.