How streams of personalized health data are extending what our bodies are capable of

Photo by Jurica Koletić on Unsplash

Today, our health is more transparent to us than ever with the digital sensors that fit into our smartphones, watches, and scales. We can now monitor and evaluate hundreds of aspects of our health with these devices, gaining access to information about ourselves and our bodies that we otherwise can’t sense. Before these personal health monitors, we could not be aware of the constant fluctuations in our weight or glucose levels. Now we can monitor them every day, after every meal. This information is empowering many people to take control of their health. In fact, over half of Americans now track their health and fitness on a daily basis, taking part in a trend being called ‘self-tracking.’

We’re just beginning to see the long-term effects of self-tracking on people’s health. At the Quantified Self Meetups hosted every year, people gather to share astounding new ways they’ve found to measure and track thousands of different aspects of their health. Many have been successful in improving their health by improving their numbers. But this fascination with personal health stats goes far beyond mining data for health insights. Our bodies are also learning from our data and some have even developed new senses in response to this data.

Over a long period of time, we come to register a stream of our data as a new body sensation.

Sociologist Whitney Boesel recalls a woman at one Quantified Self conference telling the story of how she gained the ability to predict her ovulation cycle when she was a patient at a fertility clinic trying to conceive. She began using at-home ovulation monitors regularly. In the long term, she came to sense when she was ovulating more accurately than certain tests run at the clinic. In fact, it became an issue for her to communicate with the clinic when the clinicians believed a test result over her own intuition from tracking.

This is one of the ways people have used their data: to elicit sensations. To do this, they observe the results of their health monitor and take note of the physical signals in their body at that moment. Mediating between the data and physical signals on a regular basis can redirect our awareness internally to our bodily states. Over a long period of time, we come to register a stream of our data as a new body sensation. “The data becomes a ‘prosthetic of feeling,’ something to help us sense our bodies,” according to Gina Neff, in her book Self-Tracking.

The new senses we can adapt from technology are not limited to aspects of our health.

Many people like the woman who tracked her ovulation cycle have developed these new senses as secondary effects of meticulous tracking. Others have put these senses to work, using them to improve aspects of their health or experiment with how their bodies respond to certain foods or activity. Based on their senses, some people have contemplated cause-and-effect relationships and even formed hypotheses about how their bodies work.

We might need these senses more than we think though. Kevin Kelly, former executive editor of Wired, believes these new senses about our health — what he calls “exosenses” — are ones we desperately need in this age of excess. “[T]oday, in a world made abundant by technology,” he writes in his book The Inevitable, “the threat to survival is due to an excess of good stuff. Too much goodness throws our metabolism and psychology out of kilter. . . our bodies can’t register these new imbalances very well. We didn’t evolve to sense our blood pressure or glucose levels. But our technology can.”

The exosenses we can acquire are not limited to aspects of our health. One man in Germany, Udo Wächter, developed a very keen sense of direction from wearing a belt which vibrated in the direction of magnetic north. Sensors placed all along the belt were connected to a digital compass. In every direction he turned with the belt, a section of the belt oriented toward north would vibrate. After wearing the belt for only a week, he could sense where “north” was. After six weeks, he had developed an instinctive sense of location and of where he was in a city. “I had some kind of internal map of the city in my head,” Wächter said. “I could always find my way home. Eventually I felt I couldn’t get lost, even in a completely new place.”

With devices that relay information back to us in a form our senses can detect, such as the direction of magnetic north in vibrations, we can learn to detect information that’s outside our sensory range. Using health trackers and other wearable devices, we can develop new senses about our health and environment that we haven’t evolved and that could help us thrive.

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