Super Bowl Sensors: The Findings Are In

By Cristina Quinn

Feb. 10, 2012

BOSTON — Biosensors and football: not an American tradition, but it did get inside the hearts and minds of Patriots fans. With the help of scientist Rich FletcherWGBH News tracked the emotional response of four fans throughout the Super Bowl.

On Sunday, Paul Taylor shouted and yelled when Tom Brady was called for intentional grounding and when Wes Welker couldn’t make that last-second catch. The sensor attached to Taylor's ankle showed a strong response.

paul data
Taylor's electro-dermal activity in the last hour of the game, as gathered by a sensor on his left ankle.

Odd data emerge

No surprise there. But MIT’s Fletcher did find something unexpected during the Super Bowl.

"I noticed that for a few of the people, they had some signal during part of the game, but as the game went along, their signal got weaker, and then went completely flat," Fletcher said. "This puzzled me because for most people the signal gets much bigger as the game goes along."

For the three other fans, the motion sensors detected their movement but there was almost no electro-dermal activity. Their emotional responses, whether it was cheering or yelling, while obvious to the casual observer, didn’t show up on the sensors at all.

That left Taylor as the only fan with a strong response.

And that, according to Fletcher, is all because of … beer. Taylor was the only one who didn't drink it.

paul data
Teetotaling Taylor's electro-dermal activity and acceleration over the entire game. Analysis by Rich Fletcher, research scientist at MIT and Mass. General Hospital and assistant professor at UMass Medical School, with Jiahui Carrie Liang and Jeff Reiger.

"Alcohol suppresses your galvanic skin response or electro-dermal activity," Fletcher said. Even though the other fans only drank a few beers, it was enough to hinder their emotional signals.
Sensing alcohol and drugs for health

Fletcher's team is looking at using this sensor technology to monitor people with drug addictions and learn how the drugs or different substances affect the physiology.

"By monitoring physiology, we’re able to detect — if we see some abnormality— like if you’re sweating when you’re not supposed to be sweating, or you’re not sweating when you should be sweating — then we suspect that something else might be involved," Fletcher said. "A lot of these technologies are tools that we use in our research to help not only study the science of drug addiction but also to develop better treatments and therapies for that."

Advancing science through sports

While Fletcher previously suspected that alcohol would have some impact on how emotion is measured, this experiment confirmed it.

"This project illustrated a very interesting use of these sensors for monitoring physiology and the effect of medications, alcohol and other drugs on your physiology," he said. "I wasn’t expecting to explore this as part of this project but interestingly enough, we discovered it by accident, so it was kind of fun. … We may actually get some useful data that we can build other research on."

So even though some of us are still nursing our wounds from Sunday’s defeat, we can at least take comfort in knowing we may have helped advance the cause of science and healing. It might not have anything to do with football, but we wouldn’t have made this discovery without the love of the game. 

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