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Quantified Self to Essential Self: mind and body as partners in health

A movement to bring us into a more harmonious relationship with our bodymind and with technology.

“What are you tracking?” This is the conversation at Quantified Self (QS) meetups. The Quantified Self movement celebrates “self-knowledge through numbers.” In our current love affair with QS, we tend to focus on data and the mind. Technology helps manage and mediate that relationship. The body is in there somewhere, too, as a sort of “slave” to the mind and the technology.

From blood sugar to pulse, from keystrokes to time spent online, the assumption is that there’s power in numbers. We also assume that what can be measured is what matters, and if behaviors can be measured, they can be improved. The entire Quantified Self movement has grown around the belief that numbers give us an insight into our bodies that our emotions don’t have.

However, in our relationship with technology, we easily fall out of touch with our bodies. We know how many screen hours we’ve logged, but we are less likely to be able to answer the question: “How do you feel?”

In our obsession with numbers and tracking, are we moving further and further away from the wisdom of the body? Our feelings? Our senses? Most animals rely entirely on their senses and the wisdom of the body to inform their behavior. Does our focus on numbers, measuring, and tracking move us further and further away from cultivating a real connection to our “Essential Self”?

What if we could start a movement that addresses our sense of self and brings us into a more harmonious relationship with our bodymind and with technology? This new movement would co-exist alongside the Quantified Self movement. I’d like to call this movement the Essential Self movement.

This isn’t an either/or proposition — QS and Essential Self movements both offer value. The question is: in what contexts are the numbers more helpful than our senses? In what constructive ways can technology speak more directly to our bodymind and our senses?

I’ve always enjoyed “the numbers” when I’m healthy, and this probably has contributed to making good health even better. When I’m not healthy, the numbers are like cudgels, contributing to a feeling of hopelessness and despair.

For people struggling with health challenges, taking medication as directed can be considered a significant accomplishment. Now, progressive health clinics are asking diabetics to track blood sugar, exercise, food intake, and more. While all of this is useful information, the thing not being tracked is what high or low blood sugar feels like, or what it feels like to be hungry or full. The factors contributing to the numbers often are not and cannot easily be recorded.

I love the IBGStar for measuring blood sugar. For me, the most helpful information is in all the information around what might have contributed to the numbers: how late did I eat dinner?  How many hours did I sleep?  Did I eat a super large meal? Did I exercise after dinner? Did I feel that my blood sugar was high or low?  What did that feel like? Tracking answers to these questions touches on elements of both QS and Essential Self.

So, what is Essential Self and what technologies might we develop? The Essential Self is that pure sense of presence — the “I am.” The Essential Self is about our connection with our essential nature. The physical body, our senses and feelings are often responsive to our behaviors, to others, and to activities in ways to which we fail to attend. What if we cultivated our capacity to tune in in the same way animals tune in?  What if we had a set of supportive technologies that could help us tune in to our Essential Self?

Passive, ambient, non-invasive technologies are emerging as tools to help support our Essential Self. Some of these technologies work with light, music, or vibration to support “flow-like” states.  We can use these technologies as “prosthetics for feeling” — using them is about experiencing versus tracking. Some technologies support more optimal breathing practices. Essential Self technologies might connect us more directly to our limbic system, bypassing the “thinking mind,” to support our Essential Self.

When data and tracking take center stage, the thinking mind is in charge. And, as a friend of mine says, “I used to think my mind was the best part of me. Then I realized what was telling me that.”


Here are a few examples of outstanding Essential Self technologies; please share your examples and experiences in the comments:

  • JustGetFlux.com
    More than eight million people have downloaded f.lux. Once downloaded, f.lux matches the light from the computer display to the time of day: warm at night and like sunlight during the day. The body’s circadian system is sensitive to blue light, and f.lux removes most of this stimulating light just before you go to bed. These light shifts are more in keeping with your circadian rhythms and might contribute to better sleep and greater ease in working in front of the screen. This is easy to download, and once installed, requires no further action from you — it manages the display light passively, ambiently, and non-invasively.
  • Focusatwill.com
    When neuroscience, music, and technology come together brilliantly, focusatwill.com is the result. Many of us enjoy listening to music while we work. The folks at focusatwill.com understand which music best supports sustained, engaged attention, and have curated a music library that can increase attention span up to 400% according to their website.  The selections draw from core neuroscience insights to subtly and periodically change the music so your brain remains in a “zone” of focused attention without being distracted. “Attention amplifying” music soothes and supports sustained periods of relaxed focus. I’m addicted.
  • Just for fun, use a Heartmath EmWave2 to track the state of your Autonomic Nervous System while you’re listening to one of the focusatwill.com music channels.
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  • floatingbones

    While our nervous (electrical) and chemical systems are quantifiable, our structural network is not. There is no way to monitor the tension in our muscles, tendons, ligaments, and fascia. Much of body/mind work is about altering (reducing) the tensions in our structural network. The pitfall of The Quantified Self is to presume that all important things are measurable.

  • glawton

    An important distinction is around using tools for enhancing our perception and those for replacing them. To the extent that we focus on the numbers, it seems easy to disconnect what we actually feel. On the other hand, many of the same tools can be used to uncover distinctions we had not been previously aware of, and hence improve our own sense of self. In this sense, even an ordinary mirror, when approached appropriately can guide this kind of insight:

    http://quantifiedself.com/2011/02/george-lawton-on-cultivating-happiness/