It’s not surprising when we hear the latest innovations coming out of the best science departments around the world are starting to have commercial applications in our smartphones, energy grids, cars and hospitals. As technology progresses, it pulls in new innovative ideas from basic science that were previously impractical and new innovative ideas from research labs push the technology to new places in return. There are plenty of examples of how science has led to the creation of things and procedures to solve some of our most important problems, but technology can also enable us to take a hard look at some of our habits and strategies to thrive in our unique environments and to better understand what it means to be healthy and productive.
Sleep science is great, but sleep clinics are not
Sleep science and circadian biology is a great example of how basic research in a laboratory setting can now help people in their daily lives thanks to the advancement of new technology in mobile phones and data science combined with behavioral strategies. Sleep habits have long been studied in clinical settings where people can spend a few nights in a lab and researchers can monitor and analyze vital biological signals up close. However, this is clearly not something most of us have done or want to do. The process of understanding what kinds of habits and schedules work for each individual person is unrealistic for a clinical environment since each individual is different not only from a biological point of view, but also from a social point of view. We all have different jobs, responsibilities and preferences that are difficult to generalize.
Replacing the clinic with tech and data science
Our phones and computers, for better or for worse, are now an extension of ourselves. We rarely go anywhere without being able to immediately access the information that we need. Much of our habitual fingerprint is actually sitting in our devices. Traces of when we travel, where we eat, who we talk to, when we work and when and how well we sleep are all on our devices, and when this information is secure, it is absolutely a great thing. We are able to observe our habits passively to understand the real nature of how we interact with the world.
Because of this, circadian biology can be applied to the way we live a healthy and productive life including managing the demands of work, travel and family. Sure, the data we get from these devices is different from the data that is analyzed in a sleep clinic. We are no longer in an isolated and controlled environment, but rather we are in the real world. The data is noisy and less specialized, but abundant and revealing. We are able to lean on statistics to let your habits tell us what the best strategy is for you.
The knowledge of how to best schedule ones activities including sleep, meals and exercise has long been known for generalized groups of people both at home and when traveling. The application of data science techniques can optimize these strategies for each person by using real time data from the interaction between the users and the devices. By combining the long-developed institutional knowledge of circadian biology from years of academic research with the modern capabilities of data science and cloud computing technology, a circadian profile can be extracted for each individual and we can now optimize our sleep and schedules while living our normal lives and making small, incremental changes towards healthy and productive habits.