Tag Archives: Freakback

My Quantified Self 2014 in Review

I had a good Quantified Self year this year. As a long time logger and casual athlete I have always logged my personal data in some form. This year with the support of the Quantified Self community I was able to explore two specific areas. First, I moved stress tracking from self reporting to the use of wearable devices. Though I bought a few more devices than I would have liked I found that heart rate variability measurements using $65 worth of equipment was sufficient to track stress. Second, I was able to pull out insights about consciousness and heart rate variability that set the stage for future studies.

I explored 20 ideas this year that I organized into five umbrella studies. I started looking at the data I had collected through self reporting of “Upset Events.” I followed that up with a look at Upset intensity given different situations. After seeing the limits of self reporting I started using different devices to measure stress, settling on Heartmath used during working session. Using the device I discovered Freakback can have an effect on results. After learning how to work through that I completed a first study on how I recovered from Upsets.

As I was conducting these studies I had an emerging idea that emotion is navigation. The regularity of emotional shifts seemed like “sighting” as I worked through different ideas. As I worked on this idea I found that Heartmath was too limited in what it measures. Heart Rate Variability has a more direct measurement in rMSSD. I dropped Heartmath and started using Sweetwater HRV’s SweetbeatLife to monitor rMSSD. Using this tool I started measuring stressful events like getting a tooth drilled and firing a shotgun. I played with machine learning and straight statistical regression and determined my “stress point” when read by rMSSD. This provides me a tool to study a variety of situations going forward.

Along the way I gave five Quantied Self meetup talks, 2 in London, 1 in Amsterdam and 2 in the Bay Area. In London and Amsterdam I did my talk We Never Fight on Wednesdays, and in London my followup Don’t Just Stand There. In the Bay Area I presented my talk Every Other Minute where I talked about the navigation impulse. And finally my Bay Area presentation on heart rate variability and Flow. These talks went well and I am set up to give a presentation at the QS Global conference (QS15) in June.

Some of the 20 ideas did not pan out. My work on 800 numbers went nowhere. Ideas about reading my heart rate while doing The Work by Byron Katie did not have sufficient detail to be interesting. Several other ideas blew up on the launchpad. However, I’m pleased with the progress this year. In my next post I will talk about the lessons I have learned during this work.

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Anatomy of a Freakback

I had a classic Freakback experience while doing some free form meditation with the Heartmath device. I was sitting quietly and had achieved a Poised state while watching my Heart Rate Variability (HRV) measurement on the screen. At 2:02 I saw the line jump up and can hear myself on the audio saying “What the heck?”


After that I can hear myself trying to figure out whether the device is reading correctly (as indicated by the red lines) then getting irritated that I have sat for a minute watching the reading go wild. Finally realizing I am Freakbacking, I start doing paced breathing and emerge back to Poise about 88 seconds later.

This session took place in a room with no distractions. I was relaxed, had nowhere else to be and was entirely set up for an extended period in a state of Poise. A distraction of some sort sent my HRV up and my attachment to that not happening did the rest.

Knowing how to avoid this reaction while taking on board real time data is a critical Quantified Self skill. Reacting to the notification “you are in Upset” with more Upset is and ironic and unwanted outcome.  User Experience designers should also take note – designing interactions that pull a user deeper into being mesmerised by their reading can destroy the purpose of your design.

Measuring When With Others

Pretty big design problem to solve is how to collect real time information when sitting with others. When by myself I can record my thoughts by speaking them or logging them when I see the device flashing red. As I described in my post on the respiration study I had a pretty clear system to recover when I was flashed into the Upset state. Yesterday I described how I want to take this work to understanding the Upset vs Poised state when in communication with others. Hard go.

I measured two interactions yesterday, one using Heartmath and the the other using SweetbeatLife. When I did the first interaction I was able to record it as it was by phone, but I was Freakbacking like crazy. I was on a call with the bank and watching the Heartmath monitor and as it flashed red I was trying to correct for it which made the situation even worse. As I was trying to talk to the woman on the phone the reading went haywire and I ended up actually going into a very high state of stress. It was a case of way too many inputs. When I listened to the recording I could hear the stress in my voice. Freakback central!

The second interaction was with a good friend over coffee who is sympathetic to the cause (and who is going to read this) and I just had the SweetbeatLife on monitoring my heart rate and HRV. We talked about a variety of things to include drones, dystopias, quantified self and monitoring oneself when talking to others. At the end I showed him that I was monitoring my own HRV during the discussion and he appropriately asked if I had recorded him, which I hadn’t. And what I got was a contextless HRV and stress line that in no way was helpful because I did not know what was being said or what I was thinking as the line moved during the discussion.

So in both measured interactions where i was looking for ways to be more engaged with people I either reduced engagement by Freakbacking or got a measurement that really was not useful even in review because I could not tag it with what was happening in that moment. Somehow I need to hack together a way to capture thoughts unobtrusively while not violating the privacy of others and transparency in connecting because somehow them knowing they are being recorded or my knowing that I am not being transparent in the measurement would cloud the connection.

Shrieking Freakback

I am a big believer in real time data and have arrayed my devices so they are feeding me data accordingly. If you have been following my progress I have made Upset reactions my main area of study, so I always try to get a real time ping if I have moved into an Upset state. As I write this Heartmath Pro is reading my coherence and will alert me if I enter an Upset state. Once the Upset is triggered I log what I am thinking. As I go on my run I have the Sweetwater Heart Rate Variability going on my iPod touch and it is reading from the Mio wrist band. When I wait a few minutes for my wife to run into the store I pull out my Breathe Sync to bring my respiration down and at a Poised pace. So I am often seeing all of this in real time.

One thing I have observed is a phenomenon I call “Freakback.” When I see the meter go to red I immediately want to fix it, which is an Upset reaction in and of itself. The longer I am in an Upset state the more Upset I get because the purpose of my studies eventually is to reduce the time of recovery from Upsets. So like a microphone held too close to a speaker that causes a terrible shriek, if my Freakback response is not managed I have the ironic result of the stress measurement device causing me a huge amount of stress. On a couple of occasions I have ended up really angry at a piece of plastic.

What I have done to counter this is create an indirect response to a real time indication that engages my attention immediately. I have a breath pacing app on my Android phone and when I have an Upset indicator I ignore it and turn to the breath pacer, ensuring I go through several cycles. I bring my attention back to the task when I am back to a Poised state. To ensure I do not try and “fix” each Upset I created a measure of total time in upset over the course of an hour (or five). That way like a game of golf one bad hole does not ruin the whole game. This keeps the Freakback’s to a minimum and ends up for more effective mind training.