As racers ran the grueling 26.2 miles around scenic downtown Chattanooga during the first weekend in March, researchers were peering into their minds and broadcasting the runners’ mental states live for anyone to see. No, this isn’t the plot of the latest episode of Black Mirror. This all took place at the Erlanger Chattanooga marathon.
Dr. Drew Bailey, UC Foundation Professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, has partnered with software engineer Alex Cruikshank to collect and analyze the data emitted from the minds of runners. They collect data using a futuristic-looking headset which wraps the head with multiple electrode sensors. The sensors monitor activity in different parts of the brain, and —thanks to a website and app developed by Cruikshank, general manager of the Carbon Five software company—they can see the results in real time.
There are all sorts of brainwaves like Alpha, Beta, Theta and SMR. Each of these correlate to different regions and functions of the brain. Bailey and Cruikshank have translated these brainwaves into something accessible to the public. Using sophisticated algorithms, they have translated these brainwaves into three categories: activity, focus and excitement. These three metrics give a good sense of a person’s state of mind. Bailey can even tell when a runner is about to run out of mental fortitude. And with the help of Cruikshank, onlookers could see into the mind of any runner with a headset. The data was livestreamed on his website: marathon-brainwaves.com.
The data is valuable to athletes of all sorts. Bailey said that he often has cyclists come to his booth at the marathon’s expo who “nerd out” about all the statistics. Athletes often obsess about metrics which can help their performance. If an athlete understands more about their own brain, they will be better prepared to face mental struggles or learn to manage their brain activity. Athletes are acutely aware of muscular fatigue but often neglect the mental aspect of fatigue. Bailey has found managing some of the pre-race excitement can lead to better mental stamina.
Bailey’s research is not just applicable for marathon runners or elite athletes. He hopes to expand his research to help support mental health. He has been researching brainwaves through his electroencephalogram (EEG) apparatus for a while now, and his students have been helping.
Dr. Marisa Colston, head of the Health and Human Performance Department, at UTC described him as the “father of experiential learning” on campus, so it was no surprise that he would strap a headset on his students and let them analyze the data. He is especially interested in how environment affects the mind, and with EEG data, feelings can be turned into more tangible data.
In one study, he monitored two groups of students through EEG headsets. One group sat in the park enjoying the view for 10 minutes while the other walked. Both groups experienced much higher levels of relaxation than they did while sitting in a classroom. When compared to a baseline of sitting in a classroom environment, the group walking experienced 1000% more relaxation while the group sitting outside only experienced an 100% increase.
Bailey said relaxation is important especially in current life. “Most of us spend our day activating our frontal theta lobe looking at our phones, reading, studying; it gets fatigued, so we make bad decisions,” he said. Bailey is working to understand how we can restore our brains with time spent in natural spaces. He is working in the vein of attention restoration theory where studies have shown that “if a kid with ADHD spends 20 minutes outside in a park it has the same impact as a dose of Adderall. It just doesn’t last as long,” Bailey said.
He is looking to broaden his research and study how the landscape of Chattanooga affects mental health. Bailey explained how he has used these headsets to better understand the psychological terrain of the city: “We put these headsets on students and had them walk different routes around Chattanooga. We can see how they felt in these different areas based on their mental response.” He then mapped out their findings—like a heat map—for stress and anxiety. He compared his findings to general mental health data. “About 20% of the variance in mental health can be explained by the way people feel just walking through it,” said Bailey.
For Bailey and Cruikshank, studying the brainwaves of marathon runners is fascinating, but it is mostly a test run for what they describe as their more important work: using this technology to explore mental health. The pair said they hope that this technology could one day inform public policy resulting in better spaces for healthier minds.