Smartphones may soon detect stress and worry in users, the latest innovation to use mobile devices to monitor and improve health.
Cornell researcher Tanzeem Choudhury has developed an app that uses smartphone hardware, specifically the accelerometer and microphone, to monitor people’s movements and speech for evidence of mental unrest. How fast people talk and move, how much they talk, and how often they interrupt in social conversations can indicate stress levels, research shows.
The app’s technology, which is created and funded by Intel, monitors speech patterns without recognizing actual words in order to protect privacy.
The app may help people discern when they are stressed, worried or suffering from a more serious mental health problem such as depression. It also may assist people who have already been diagnosed with a mental condition monitor their emotional state.
Health-related apps have long measured physical signs of health, such as blood pressure and heart rate, but “sensing mental health is somewhat underexplored,” according to Choudhury.
Other apps have delved into the human mind, including one that measures brain waves to check for possible health conditions and another that analyzes how certain behaviors impact sleep. And one, the T2 Mood Tracker, was designed to help combat veterans monitor emotions to check for signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.
These apps rely on monitoring physical symptoms and actions or, in the case of the mood tracker, on questionnaires to gather information and make assessments. Choudhury’s software, on the other hand, continually monitors mental health cues in real time as the day’s events and conversations unfold, potentially creating a more natural snapshot of the user’s stress level.
The app’s interface is an aquarium screen saver. Many fish swimming peacefully in the aquarium indicate relaxation and mental ease. Fewer fish may show rising stress levels, while a darkened aquarium could mean the user needs sleep.
This interface is still experimental, but it hints at researchers’ desire to engage people with their problems in gentle, subtle ways, providing a method to both monitor and report mental health changes without answering questions on a survey or visiting a doctor’s office — procedures that can themselves cause stress.
So far, the app has been tested in a retirement community and among medical interns and residents. These pilot tests have been successful, and Choudhury says the technology compares well with gold standards medical professionals use for mental health assessment.
The software is still in the testing stages and has a ways to go before it’s available for public use, but its early success indicates it may have a place in the growing mobile health field.