I’m ten minutes late for spin class, so I speed up into a light jog. My iPhone vibrates, and I take it out of my pocket. “Your breathing suggests you’re tense,” it tells me. “Take a deep breath?”
Not too many years ago, this would have sounded like a futuristic fiction. But our health-obsessed society has been inundated with digital products that promise to quantify the wearer’s wellbeing. By the end of this year, nearly 40 million U.S. adults will have used wearables, an increase of almost 58% since last year. Most of those are sports and activity trackers, which range from the utilitarian (Fitbit, which accounts for about one in four devices sold) to the luxurious (Swarovski’s activity tracking jewelry).
This surfeit of data provides us with precise knowledge of our physical activity, down to the last calorie. Yet what’s going on in our brains is harder to quantify. We can track how many calories we burn by going on a bike ride, but it’s harder to measure how we actually feel during the ride.
One solution is presented by Spire, a $149.95 device that monitors your breathing patterns. The app alerts you when it senses tension, under the theory that you can reshape your breath to reshape your mood – like “brakes and a gas pedal for your body and brain,” as an in-app breathing drill puts it. (The device also counts your steps, eliminating the need for a second wearable.)
Just as a Fitbit might aid in weight loss, Spire promises to reduce stress. More than 75% of tension notifications result in calmer breathing within 90 seconds, according to Spire founder Neema Moraveji. After a month of regular use, the average user experiences half as much tension.
Launched early this year, the device emerged from Moraveji’s research at Stanford, where he runs the Calming Technology Lab. While many trackers focus on eating, moving, and sleeping, he considers state of mind the most important lifestyle factor: “If you have a balanced state of mind, you can make healthier decisions. You can communicate better.”
Your body has no shortage of signals to reveal state of mind. When your body is under stress, your heart rate speeds up, your pupils dilate, and your breath becomes rapid and shallow. However, most of those reactions are outside your control.
“You can’t change your heart rate. But breath is different. If I tell you to breathe differently, you can do that,” Moraveji explained to me.
State of mind isn’t a metric that most of us contemplate daily, so using Spire requires a bit of mental adjustment. I spent my first few days with the device poring over my activity graph: what was I doing during that 9am Focus streak? What prompted my 3pm stretch of calm? (Future versions of Spire will also sync with calendar and location data. Instead of just seeing a calm streak, you’ll be able to look back and see where you were and what you were doing that made you so calm). But I quickly got used to the device, its presence on my side light and relatively unobtrusive. After about three days, I started automatically visualizing my breathing as a fluctuating line and adjusting it accordingly.
More surprising was that Spire seemed to think I was less anxious than I felt. While I frequently felt anxious, those worries never prompted a Tension notification. However, the app buzzed at times when I was physically under duress – say, rushing to the gym – but didn’t feel any kind of mental anxiety.
Why the discrepancy?
“That’s weird,” he said. “There is a possibility that you were feeling so anxious that you were holding your breath, instead of hyperventilating. That’s another thing we are improving on.” He also conceded that we also breathe fast when we’re moving, so that’s why the app detected tension in the second scenario.
On some level, this is disappointing. But Spire represents a major breakthrough. The concept of mindfulness has become so mainstream that it is almost trite – even pole dancing classes now promise to make participants more mindful. Spire turns this cultural phenomenon into data you can measure and tackle without getting up from your desk. In Moraveji’s view, it’s further proof that technology can improve people’s lives.
“The thing we’re proud of is taking the vague concept of stress and making people aware that it’s very real and we can do something about it,” he said. “This is just the beginning.”