Technology for healthier minds - a turning tide

This is an earlier version of an article I wrote for The Conversation

The truth is, engineers like myself, aren’t especially known for our social and emotional intelligence.  It’s no wonder then, that we have seldom focused on the impact the technologies we create have on the psychological wellbeing of the people who use them.  I’m happy to report that the tides are turning.  A new era of positive computing could see technology designed specifically to promote wellbeing and human potential.  And it’s about time.

Digital technologies have made their way into all the aspects of our lives that, according to psychology, influence our wellbeing -- everything from social relationships and curiosity to engagement and learning.  The press keeps us anxious about the negative impacts of using internet technologies with regular articles on always-on stress and suggestions for coping.  Psychiatrists are in the process of adding "Internet Addiction” to their official Diagnostic Manual on Mental Illness.   (see inclusion of Internet Addiction in the DSM-5).  

But we are less aware of how these same technologies can be used to improve mental health problems, or how they might help all of us live happier psychologically healthier lives. Researchers have begun to investigate how Internet technologies like e-mail and social media platforms like Facebook could support young people in crisis, adults suffering from depression, and to help smartphone users to be more mindful.  

These emergent efforts come just as we are seeing technology, psychology and neuroscience converge. On the one hand, engineers are getting more involved in issues of human emotion, values and wellbeing, recognising the need for it, and the science, behind it. On the other hand, there is an emerging interest among mental health professionals to figure out how technology can be used, not only to treat illness, but also for a larger mission to promote optimum mental health in everyone.

At the University of Sydney we’ve just begun a three-year project in collaboration with the Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre, in which we will conduct research to inform the development of an online clinic, a semi-automated triage system and an online hub where young people can download tools and applications to help them improve their wellbeing. The Young and Well CRC is engaging in multidisciplinary approaches that bring software specialists together with psychologists and other mental health experts to create novel technologies specially designed to promote mental health.

The Young and Well CRC is not alone. An increasing number of engineers and computer scientists are working, within multidisciplinary teams, on systems that promote prosocial behaviours such as altruism, empathy, resilience and mindfulness. In a recent study published in PLOS One, a team at Stanford, led by Jeremy Bailenson, used Augmented Virtual reality games to develop helping behaviors (ie. altruism). Half of the 60 participants who completed the study were given the virtual power to fly like Superman (the ‘superhero’ condition), while the other half flew in a virtual helicopter. In the two by two design, participants in each of these groups were also allocated to either helping to find a lost sick child or tour a virtual city.  

At the end of the VR experience participants were confronted by someone who needs help (the dependent behavioural condition). The results showed that those in the Superhero condition were significantly more likely to help and helped more than those in the other conditions.   Although the Stanford researchers hypothesized that the embodied experience of helping facilitated the transfer of this behaviour to the real-world other studies have shown similar correlations between ‘positive’ prosocial games and prosocial behaviours with lower tech immersion.

Yellowslee and Cook of UC Davis created a virtual psychiatry clinic in Second Life which promotes empathy for people with serious mental illness.   By touring the clinic participants can experience first hand the auditory and visual hallucinations associated with psychosis.  The majority of over 500 voluntary visitors to the clinic who responded to their survey said it helped them better understand this experience.

Technologies that foster the factors correlated to psychological wellbeing are only likely to become more common. Their development will very often be driven by non-profit and government organisations like the Inspire Foundation (our lead partner in the Young and Well CRC). For example, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has recently funded a project led by neuroscientist Prof Richard Davidson, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, to develop mobile applications that support the development of children’s mindfulness skills.  Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard recently launched wellbeing@school, a component of, a highly successful online service that supports young people’s mental health. These resources are mapped to the Australian Curriculum and will be offered at no cost to schools.

Research such as this, together with case studies from around the world, will be described in a forthcoming book I am co-authoring with digital designer, Dorian Peters from the University of Sydney.  The book, Positive Computing: Technology for a Better World (to be published in 2014 by MIT Press) outlines the landscape of “Positive Computing”, an emerging field of research and practice dedicated to the investigation and design of technologies that support psychological wellbeing and human potential.  We believe that this research will bring together research and methodologies well-established in psychology, engineering, education and neuroscience, to begin a new era of digital experiences that are deeply human-centred.

It was Aristotle that said all our efforts in life are ultimately about seeking wellbeing – shouldn’t designers of technology be our allies on this journey?