Which mental state do we need to be in to perform at our best? ETH Pioneer Fellow Marc Bächinger is working with Sarah Meissner to come up with the answer. Their technology, MyFlow, helps build mental strength. Together, they are about to launch their own start-up.
In her spare time, Meissner enjoys playing table tennis. Between points in the game, she makes a conscious effort to pause for a moment and briefly focus her concentration on one specific part of her body, such as her fingertips. She also plays close attention to her breathing. It’s mental strategies like these that help her stay focused. "There are always moments when I notice a drop in my concentration," she says. That’s usually when her performance suffers, and she loses a point.
And this isn’t just the case in sport: our mental strength can also affect how we perform in exams or at work. The question is: how do we adopt the mindset we need to perform at our best? Working with ETH Pioneer Fellow Bächinger, Meissner has developed a method for training mental strength. They call it MyFlow - a software program that measures the brain’s level of activity at a given time and displays it on a scale. Once we are aware of our current level of alertness, we can learn to regulate it and tune it to the desired optimum.
MyFlow works in an incredibly simple way: using an infrared camera, an eye tracker can help detect whether we are in the right mental state to perform at our best. Norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter, is one of the chemicals responsible for the brain’s state of alertness. It is released by an area in the brainstem called the locus coeruleus. Our pupils are an indicator of its activity. "If we are tense, stressed or even panicky, our pupils dilate," Bächinger explains. "But if we start to get sleepy, they get smaller."
The potential applications of MyFlow are manifold - from training devices for athletes and medical therapies (to ease stress, for example) to a phone app with exercises to help with everyday relaxation. Bächinger and Meissner are planning to set up a company. They plan to be operational in no more than six months.
Mental training for athletes
The duo already have a prototype in the form of software that Bächinger has created for VR headsets. When you put them on, a pointer indicates your current state of alertness on a gauge. You can then try to control your mental state by applying mental strategies in virtual space. The integrated eye tracker measures changes in your pupil size, prompting the pointer to move up and down accordingly.
Bächinger and Meissner’s target market is the field of mental training for athletes. Using their feedback, they plan to refine their software in preparation for selling it to their first customers in the near future. They have already launched a project with a golfer and applied to carry out a pilot study at the Swiss Federal Institute of Sports Magglingen across different sports disciplines. "We’re looking for more up-and-coming and elite athletes interested in testing our new software," Meissner says.
Ultimate goal: smartphone app
The long-term goal is to make the method compatible with smartphones. "That way, you’d be able to get real-time feedback about your mental state on your phone," Meissner says, "and then consciously influence it." Before this phone app becomes reality, however, MyFlow still has to prove itself in practice.
One of the challenges is lighting conditions. "Light has a much greater influence on the dilation and contraction of our pupils than any mental strategies we can apply," Bächinger explains. For the app to function in an everyday setting, the software must be able to recognise key changes in ambient light conditions - regardless of whether these take place in the shade of a forest or under the bright sun on a beach. "That’s a technological challenge," Bächinger says, "but one that is feasible." Use of the technology on smartphones is a key goal for the future, which is why Bächinger is already testing it today - with the help of a device that enables a smartphone to be used as a VR headset.
Bächinger has spent years investigating how to influence the processes that take place in our brain. In fact, he wrote his doctoral thesis on non-invasive brain stimulation methods. The idea for MyFlow came up after a discussion with Nicole Wenderoth, Professor for Neural Control of Movement at ETH Zurich. "She came back from a conference one day and said: ‘You know what’ Maybe it is possible to consciously influence the activity of the locus coeruleus’." As a scientist, he initially thought the idea was a joke. "I couldn’t believe it would be so simple. But we experimented and found out that it could actually work."
Putting sleep problems to bed
Today, Bächinger is in charge of the software’s development and optimisation and, with the support of the ETH Pioneer Fellowship program, he’s also working on developing the business side of things. For her part, Meissner, who has a background in psychology and neuroscience (University of Constance and HHU Düsseldorf), is responsible for the scientific validation of the method. One focus of her previous research was on Parkinson’s disease, in which the locus coeruleus also appears to play an important role.
Life as an entrepreneur, Bächinger concludes, is very different from life as a researcher. The start-up world is very dynamic, he says, and with that comes the uncertainty about whether everything will work out as he’d hoped. Bächinger actually found it so hard to stop thinking about it all that he had trouble sleeping. But, with the help of MyFlow, he trained himself to relax. "If I found myself unable to sleep, I tried to think about nothing at all." During the day, he worked on this "blank mind" strategy using the tool he had developed - and that really helped him. "I’m back to sleeping really well again now," he says.
MyFlow at ETH Industry Day
At the ETH Industry Day on 8 September, those from industry who are interested in MyFlow can try it out. MyFlow is one of more than 80 booths where researchers, entrepreneurs and students will be presenting their work.