The State Of Biosensors And The Super Bowl

By Cristina Quinn

Feb. 6, 2012

BOSTON —  There’s no need to relive the crushing defeat of the Patriots in Sunday's Super Bowl, but if anything, the game was testament to the emotional roller coaster many of us experience during large televised sporting events. Although it’s just a game, many people take their sports very seriously … to the point of endangering their health.

There’s even a study in the "Journal of Emergency Medicine" that found that significantly fewer people go to the emergency room during the Super Bowl. Massachusetts General Hospital saw an average 17 percent drop in the number of ER visits during the 2005 and 2008 Super Bowls.
So that means even if someone is experiencing some potentially life-threatening symptoms, that person is willing to sacrifice his health just so he can watch Brady throw a Hail Mary pass to Gronkowski. I mean, how sick is that?
It's a question of "intentional focus," said Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a professor of psychology at UMass Amherst, where a dozen people's "focus" led to arrests after the game. "When you’re engrossed in an emotionally compelling situation, you’re going to ignore what’s going on inside your body."
Although most people don't realize it, sports games are actually "kind of high on the stress scale of life events," she said. "The more intensely affected you are by the game and the more your identity rests on the game, the more it’s going to be as if it were an actual stressful life event in your own life."

LISTEN: WGBH News' Bob Seay talks about the loss with Carl Beane, "the Voice of Fenway."

With a record number of viewers expected last night for the Super Bowl, that meant millions of people all over the country sitting around their televisions would be screaming or cheering at the same time. WGBH News was curious to learn how to measure those fluctuating emotions, so we went to Rich Fletcher, an MIT research scientist and an expert on wireless sensors and mobile health. He makes biosensors that monitor people’s emotions. They work through galvanic skin response, he said, "which we call electro dermal activity, which measures what your skin is doing. And your skin — the pores in your skin, specifically the sweat glands, are tied to what’s known as the sympathetic nervous system."

The sympathetic nervous system affects the parts of our body and brain that we can’t consciously control, like heart rate, perspiration and goose bumps. The way the biosensor works is similar to a lie detector. By monitoring heartbeat, temperature and skin resistance, it tracks how we respond to certain situations.
WGBH thought, what better place to get the pulse of a true Patriots fan than in the town of Foxboro, Mass, home of Gillette Stadium.

George and Fran Bell decorated their home in honor of the Patriots. From the helium-filled Patriots balloons, to the folding metal chairs and table they brought inside for full tailgate effect, to the red-silver-and-blue bead necklaces that served as festive good luck charms, no one could argue: This is the home of true Pats fans. WGBH strapped the biosensors onto the left ankles of the Bells and two guests, Paul and Sean. Inside the black bands were the sensors, which were wired to the two metal buttons that came into contact with the skin.

From there, the data was sent wirelessly via Bluetooth to this reporter's smartphone. So when Paul shouted at the screen in the tense third quarter, the graph on the phone spiked up.

super bowl sensor data

SENSOR DATA: The last five minutes of the 2012 Super Bowl, as experienced by Paul Taylor.

Now, this wasn't the first time biosensors were used during the Super Bowl. Advertisers have been using them in experiments for the past few years to see how people respond during the commercial breaks.  But Fletcher saw the potential for using this technology in healthcare.

"Another very important area, which is an area that I’ve been pushing very hard on is using mobile phones and the internet to create therapy. Not just measure when you’re stressed, but to do something about it," he said.

Fletcher is managing a program at the VA Hospital in Bedford where he works with patients who have PTSD and drug addiction. "We built a system where they have a sensor that they put on their ankle and they carry around their phone," he said. "And when they’re feeling stressed or aroused, the phone will pop up a message, and the idea is to create some therapeutic messages that will help them think about their drug craving and hopefully help resist taking drugs."
The messages might be text, a picture, etc. The idea is for the patient to learn how to cope with feelings of stress and anxiety. A doctor could prescribe particular messages or images instead of prescription drugs — or someone could use this application to treat himself.

"The sensor bands make your physiology much more visible and it makes you more aware of what you’re doing and how you’re feeling," Fletcher said. "Over time, once you learn to recognize that on your own, you won’t need a sensor band anymore. You can still carry around your phone, but you won’t need to phone to automatically feed those messages to you when you’re feeling stressed."
While we may not need a biosensor to tell us when we’re excited during the Super Bowl, it might come in handy when someone like Paul, completely losing it during the fourth, needs to be reminded that it’s time to take a deep breath and relax. 

If you’re still reeling from Sunday's loss, Whitbourne said, "Put it in perspective. It hurts. Everybody knows it hurts. There’s no getting around that fact. Life will go on. There’s next year. And consider taking it slow today, she said. "They’ve done studies to find that the day after a team loses, you make poor decisions, so maybe don’t make any decisions that could backfire — even at work. Your cognitive function is worse after a game where you’ve lost."

So forget about the intentional grounding, the 12 men on the field, Brady getting sacked. There’s always next year, but if it’s too soon to say that, well … pitchers and catchers report to spring training in 13 days.

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