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MIT Media Lab’s Rosalind Picard on the Lab’s New Wellness Initiative


Rosalind Picard is the founder and director of the Affective Computing Research Group in MIT’s Media Lab. Photo provided.

So much of the technology that has transformed our lives has not contributed to our health and wellbeing, says Rosalind Picard, ScD, founder and director of the Affective Computing Research Group and professor of media arts and sciences at the MIT Media Lab, the birthplace of such innovations as Guitar Hero and HDTV.

“Think about the most intense stuff people encounter in their workplaces and multiply it by every member of the MIT Media Lab,” says Picard. “People aren’t sleeping enough, they’re eating junk food and they’re not prioritizing time for exercise or social interaction.”

To help address the role of technology in shaping health, the MIT Media Lab recently received a $1 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). Built around education and student mentoring, the Advancing Wellbeing Initiative also includes community programs, prototyping tools and technologies to support physical, mental, social and emotional wellbeing.

This week, we talked to Picard, the co-director of the Advancing Wellbeing Initiative, about her work, why it’s so important and why the MIT Media Lab is precisely the right place for wellness innovation to catalyze.

Q: Why is the Advancing Wellness Initiative so important right now?

People haven’t given wellness a lot of thought when designing the technologies we use daily, such as iPhones. There are all of these people who are developing technologies specifically for health and wellbeing, but we realized that most technologies outside of health and wellness didn’t even give wellbeing a passing thought.

Q: Why is the MIT Media Lab the right place for this kind of work?

The MIT Media Lab is very influential. A lot of technologies have come out of the lab, such as HDTV, E Ink and Guitar Hero. We have brand new fields of tangible computing, affective computing and wearable computing. At the same time, people have largely not understood what it takes to create wellbeing.

RWJF realized that the MIT Media Lab has this huge influence on technology. And if they help us inject a culture of health into our work, then maybe we would have more of an influence on the technologies being created. Mind you, this is not just for projects in the medtech space; it’s about asking every student – no matter what they’re building – to think about the impact that their technology can have on health.

Q: What do you expect to see in your students, staff and their technologies as the initiative progresses?

A lot of things are starting to change. People who never really thought about health and wellbeing are showing up for these seminars. They’re learning about the importance of sleep and diet. They’re learning how to sort through the latest scientific findings and are discovering ways to make healthier choices in day-to-day life in the workplace and at home.

As a result of this work, we’re finding that people at the MIT Media lab are getting up from their desks more. They’re eating better. We’re including more social activities. These are things that we hope will translate into better wellbeing.

We’re also doing a lot more research projects involving medtech and health and wellbeing. We knew that was likely to happen. The big goal is to get everybody in our community to embrace the idea that they should be thinking about wellbeing, even if they’re not specifically working on medtech.

Q: What helps inform the seminar topics?

We originally focused on Marty Seligman’s framework of wellbeing, which has five pillars: positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment – and then we added physical health, diet and sleep. A lot of people don’t realize how intense a workplace like the MIT Media Lab is. We have overachievers trying to work 80-hour weeks, pushing out state-of-the art technologies. It’s not enough to have ideas and publish them, you have to build, deploy, test, and scale them. It’s rapid everything – rapid product innovation, rapid prototyping, rapid study design and approval, rapid execution. It’s very intense.

Think about what the most intense stuff people encounter in their workplaces and multiply it by every member of the MIT Media Lab. People aren’t sleeping enough, they’re grabbing whatever junk food they can get quickly, they’re not making time for exercise or social interaction. This is a community that has been promoting an all-night hackathon mentality, a “do it more and faster” and “do it now” mentality. And they’re not thinking about the long-term impact on wellbeing.

So the first thing we have to do is bring in respectable speakers to educate people about how changing the amount of sleep you get affects your productivity. You miss sleep one night and it can take a toll for many days. And it doesn’t just take a toll in terms of feeling sluggish. It takes a toll on memory formation, stress and mood. You miss enough sleep and your mood actually drops, and you could set yourself up for depression or other serious long-term health consequences. Not to mention risks to your driving and risks to your relationships.

This work has started to trigger projects that are leading to new apps, new technologies and new personal wellbeing measures. It goes from being an academic topic – we all know we should get a good night’s sleep – to tonight, when I face the decision of staying up and finishing a writing deadline I have tomorrow, versus going to bed at the same time, I recognize that the amount of sleep I get tonight could have an impact on my work for days.

Aine Cryts

Aine Cryts

    Aine (“ONya”) Cryts is an on-staff contributing writer for MedTech Boston. She's a political scientist by education, a writer and marketer by trade. She has written for various healthcare technology publications and also served as marketing director at several healthcare software companies in the Boston area. Cryts is an avid volunteer, pet lover and long-distance runner. Story ideas are always welcome.

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