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Ameliorating loneliness through the use of technology

09 Apr

Loneliness seems to be here to stay. Although western civilization has allowed us to connect with more people faster  and more frequently than ever before, many of us find ourselves suffering from feelings of abject solitude. Perhaps stimulating our sense of community over long distances through text, pictures, and video simply isn’t enough to deliver that feeling of well-connectedness. Shaking hands, giving a hug, or getting a real pat on the back are all impossibilities when we’re sitting at our computers, talking to someone many hundreds of miles away. What if we could use technology to help fill this seemingly impossible chasm pulling us apart?Well, a new Stanford research paper titled “Intimate Heartbeats: Opportunities for Affective Communication Technology” aims to point us in the right direction.

The research attempts to tackle the disparaging lack of a physical connection over long-distance communication by inserting the heartbeat of the communicating partner into the auditory stream. In a way, they wanted to know “What if you could hear how someone else is feeling”.  They used virtual reality to simulate how physically close participants were to each other when they communicated. How close do you stand to someone when you first meet them?  They tracked eye contact as well as responses to questions. They found that self-reported intimacy was higher when the participants could hear the other person’s heartbeat than when they couldn’t. Furthermore, the effect was equal to that of physically looking the other person in the eye.

The heartbeat doesn’t even need to be heard, either. It can be a sensation felt on the skin. The authors mention a ring, but one can also imagine something of a “heartbeat headphones” type of device that might be connected to a bracelet or even be a part of regular headphones. This is very promising research and raises many questions; Does this work equally well for all people? Can this be used as a therapeutic mechanism for people who exhibit antisocial behavior or who may have disorders with symptoms that parallel loneliness? Maybe we’ll know some of these answers soon, as the authors seem to be on the right track.

Here is their conclusion:

In this age of the Internet in which people interact more and more with their computers and less and less with each other,we need new ways to communicate emotions and maintain close connections. Decades of research have shown the importance of physiological signals for our own emotional experiences. This study presents evidence that physiological signals can be important communicative tools as well. Heartbeats are shown to be a powerful intimate nonverbal cue. Because of the intimate nature of heartbeat communication, it could potentially prove to be beneficial for social connectedness. Similarly, heartbeat communication might also improve emotion recognition and communication. This opens up a future in which we augment our natural emotion communication by new technologies that share the biosignals carrying our emotions.

Loneliness is obviously a very important topic for many of us. Google returns over 24 million results for the search term. There are countless blog articles devoted to the subject. Here are some written by people who experience or think about loneliness: Dreaming of Quiet Places, A Poem on Loneliness, Comparing Loneliness to AlonenessThe Complicated Simple Life. And a good professional read by Dr. Booth.

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