As a self-tracking nerd, I’m obsessed with gathering and optimizing meaningful data around various aspects of my life. From calorie intake and hours slept to optimize my physical health, to pomodoros worked and time on social media to optimize my work life.
The activity of my mind is one of the trickier aspects to measure. Sure, I can use apps like Insight Timer to track minutes meditated or devices like the Muse headband to measure my brain waves. I used to even record my mood (on a scale of 1 to 10) every few hours, but found it a pain. Until now I’ve struggled to find a “set and forget it” type device that tracks my mental/emotional state throughout the day without needing to do anything.
That’s why I was beyond excited learning about the Spire Stone Breath Tracker. It’s a wearable device that measures your breathing patterns, thus giving you a glimpse inside your state of mind. I’ve experimented with the Spire for the past year or so and in this article, I’m going to give you an overview of the technology.
Why The Breath Is The Bridge To The Mind
If the mind and body are connected, their junction occurs at the level of the breath. As Thich Nhat Hanh once said, “Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts.”
The range of states you can experience are intimately linked with their own distinct style of breathing. If you’re anxious before an important meeting, your breathing naturally becomes rapid and shallow. If you’re relaxing at home at the end of your day, your breath becomes deep and slow. If you’re locked in at work and in a state of flow, your breathing rhythms become much more consistent than normal.
A growing trend the past few years has been to reverse engineer this process by tapping into a particular style of breathing to enter a specific state of consciousness – whether using holotropic breathwork to tap into mystical-like states, wim hof breathing to get a euphoric jolt of energy, or heart rate variability (HRV) training to melt stress and anxiety from the body.
How To Monitor Your Mind With The Spire Breath Tracker
If you think of the range of emotions and mental states as different channels on a television, then the breath is the remote controller you can use to jump from one channel to the next.
Stressed with a deadline at work? Slow breathing will wind you down in minutes. Feeling scatterbrained and unable to focus? High-frequency Kapalabhati breathing will do the trick. Suffering from a bout of depression? Sudarshan Kriya breathing could help manage your symptoms.
The beauty of the breath is it’s available anytime, anywhere to practically engineer our state of consciousness at will. The problem is most are completely unaware of this built-in mind hacking technology they’re equipped with.
Biofeedback training devices like the Spire Breath Tracker allows us to gain greater awareness of functions of our body that typically fly under our radar. Biofeedback training expert Maxwell Cade sums up this point perfectly in his book The Awakened Mind:
“Essentially, biofeedback is a new way of learning about ourselves, or a way of relearning, or realizing for the first time, what the body already knows— how to act, how to feel, even how to heal— if we listen to it. With biofeedback instruments and techniques, the art of listening to internal cues can be restored, or established. Since one cannot control that of which one is unaware, biofeedback can be said to provide the means to become aware— acutely aware— of ourselves, and thereby to gain the possibility of self-control.”
How The Spire Stone Breath Tracker Works
The Spire Stone is a wearable device that clips to your belt or bra. It tracks the expansion and contraction of your torso or chest, thus measuring your respiratory pattern (and associated cognitive/emotional states).
It’s technology, which was originally created at Stanford University’s Calming Technology Lab, measures a host of metrics associated with your breath:
- Inhalation / exhalation duration and slope
- Hold durations after inhale and exhale
- Inhalation/exhalation ratio
- Respiratory waveform morphology
Here’s a video I recorded of the Spire app home screen. The line moving up is my inhalation, and the line moving down my exhalation:
Its algorithms use this data to identify if you’ve entered three distinct states: calm, tense, and focus. Let’s break down each of these three states and how they relate to the Spire.
A Brief Primer On Our Nervous System
Before we move forward, it’s worth setting a foundation and cover the basics of our nervous system, which are divided into two parts: the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems.
The sympathetic nervous system can be thought of as our body’s “on switch”. This arousal system is referred to as our “fight or flight response”, and its job is to turn on various systems in our body when something of motivational importance is presented to us. If a bear is seen in the distance, it’s the system that makes our hearts race, glands excrete sweat, and respiratory rate increase as we prepare to either fight or flee.
The other half of our nervous system can be thought of as our body’s “off switch.” This relaxation system is referred to as our “rest and digest response”, and its job is to turn off various systems in our body in order to conserve energy. After you’ve run away from that bear, it wouldn’t serve you to continue pumping out adrenaline, breathing fast, etc. The parasympathetic system allows you to turn these systems off and rejuvenate its energy reserves.
These two divisions of our nervous system generally inhibit one another. When the sympathetic system is activated, the parasympathetic system turns off, and vice versa. These two systems play a key role in the various mental states we cover below.
Calm: 6 – 12 Breaths Per Minute
Our typical rate of breathing occurs at 12-20 breaths per minute. States of calm generally occur around 6 – 12 breaths per minute. When you’re Netflix’ing at home, hanging out with friends, or listening to music, chances are your breath rate is sitting in this range.
When this occurs, your parasympathetic response is kicking in, largely carried out by the Vagus nerve – the longest nerve of in the body that starts out from the base of our brain and reaches most of the major organs. When you’re in states of calm, your Vagus nerve is at work helping slow your heart rate down, digest food that you’ve eaten, aid in self-healing, rejuvenate energy reserves, and more.
The Spire is amazing at optimizing time spent sitting in this crucial state. If you’re experiencing a streak of calm and for whatever reason get thrown off, the device will alert you. This priceless feedback allows you make the necessary changes and steer the ship back into this rejunivating state.
The beauty of the breath is its the only component of our nervous system that works both on a voluntary and involuntary level, giving you conscious control to calm your mind/body by slowing down the breath. The Spire is an amazing tool to help with this. If you’re feeling particularly tense, the app has a feature that helps bring your respiratory rate down:
As your breathing slows down, grey dots turn green. When all the dots are green, your respiratory rate is at a calm level.
Tense: 18 – 24 Breaths Per Minute
Tense states generally occur around 18 – 24 breaths per minute.
When this occurs, the sympathetic nervous system is kicking in and your body is preparing to either fight or flee from a threat – cortisol courses through your veins, your heart rate & blood pressure rise, and digestion slows down.
Although this served us for millions of years to outrun bears and defend against neighboring tribes, in modern times this system is overactive. Elevated cortisol levels diminish our memory, weaken our immune system, increase weight gain, blood pressure, and heart disease. Consider these statistics:
- 7 out of 10 Americans say they experience stress or anxiety every single day1
- 44% of Americans report an increase in psychological stress over the past five years2
- 60–80% of doctor visits have a stress-related component3
- Workplace stress accounts to over $300 billion dollars per year in healthcare bills and missed workdays
I viewed myself as a relatively calm person. But it was only through the Spire that I realized how often I’m tense. The device would alert me various times of my day that normally I thought I was calm (but in reality was stressed) – whether this was driving my car, being in certain social scenarios, or working on the computer.
When these events occurred, I’d feel the Spire buzz around my waist, reminding me to chill out. I’d then take a few slow, deep breaths to crank my respiratory rate down. These little micro-adjustments add up throughout the day, week, and months to save you a mountain of strain on your body.
The Spire is constantly recording your mental/emotional states, feeding all this data to your Spire dashboard. Within a few taps on your phone, you can view the day-by-day, week-by-week changes in your mental states.
If you’re attempting to manage stress in your life, these valuable metrics could be key in helping you achieve this. Maybe every other week you test various stress management tools (meditation, exercise, art therapy, etc). Based on the feedback you’re getting from your Spire, you can use hard data to pinpoint which of these activities is best moving the needle.
Focus: Greater Consistency & Stability In Breathing
States of focus are associated with greater consistency than normal breathing patterns.
As Spire’s scientific director Stephen Porges Ph.D describes it “the ability to direct and focus cognitive activity on specific stimuli”4 and it exhibits a reduction in random variability (i.e., greater consistency) while mental load will actually increase random variability, leading to more ‘erratic’ breathing5. (More info about this idea can be found here.)
When you’re “in the zone” at work, chances are you’re in this state. Time flies without you even noticing it, creative ideas are effortlessly oozing out of you, and your cognitively firing on all cylinders. It’s the state of mind the famous Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi famously named as “flow”.
Normally, the sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions of your nervous systems mutually inhibit one another. But in flow states, the parasympathetic and sympathetic divisions strike a healthy balance. You’re alert, but not anxious. Calm, but still focused. Blissed out and performing at your very best.
Until now, it was nearly impossible to track time spent in this magical mind state. But the Spire Stone gives us the ability to do just that. When you’re breathing is more consistent than normal, the Stone counts this time as a focus “streak.”
Maybe you find that you’re more focused at certain periods of the day, or at a certain location, or while playing a certain type of album in the background. The Stone allows you to gather these meaningful bits of data you’d normally never get access to, giving you the ability to maximize time spent in this crucial state.
Why I Recommend The Spire Stone
The Spire Stone Breath Tracker accomplishes something I’ve been searching for years to find: the ability to track my mental and emotional states on autopilot.
Its given me unprecedented access into the activity of my mind, allowing you to maximize time spent in productive states like focus and calm, and minimize time in tense states. I’d highly recommend picking up the Stone, especially since it’s relatively low cost. The Spire currently sells for $99, which in my opinion is a bargain for the insights you’ll gain in return.
Have you tried the Spire Stone? If so, let us know your experiences with the device in the comments below.
Cover art by Seamlesso
- American Psychological Association. Stress in America: Our Health at Risk, 2012. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association; 2012.
- Health care providers’ training, perceptions, and practices regarding stress and health outcomes. Avey H, Matheny KB, Robbins A, Jacobson TA J Natl Med Assoc. 2003 Sep; 95(9):833, 836-45.
- Avey H, Matheny KB, Robbins A, Jacobson TA J Natl Med Assoc. 2003 Sep; 95(9):833, 836-45.
- DeGangi, G., Porges, S. (1990). Neuroscience Foundations of Human Performance. American Occupational Therapy Association Inc.
- Vlemincx, E., van Diest, I., van den Bergh, O. (2012). A sigh following sustained attention and mental stress: Effects on respiratory variability. Physiology & Behavior, 107, Issue 1, pp. 1–6.