Addicted to iPhone? There’s an App for that

Sleep Science Alarm – with iPsychologist is an application for iPhone / iPad / iPod Touch, released this week. Based on the press release I received from creator Brett Galbraith, he’s pretty excited about the launch as you’d expect. 

Press release hype aside, this seems a pretty well fleshed-out alarm / sleep cycle analyser with some psychology-based options as well. One of those psychology sessions is a tongue-in-cheek piece on iPhone addiction -more on the app in the short review below. Back on the press release, some of its claims seemed a little overblown from a science  viewpoint, so I contacted Brett Galbraith to get some more information, which he promptly provided:

CT: You make the claim “A simulated sunrise means that the phone lights up a few minutes before the alarm to naturally increase your cortisol levels and wake you up naturally”. Can you explain how this occurs? My understanding of the research is that waking up in light does increase the cortisol response, but do you believe the level of illumination from the iPhone and its type of light allows that to occur? If so – do you have data to support it?

BG: Any type of light will begin to wake a person after they have been asleep. That of course is a big part of the reason why we awake as the sun comes up and why we find it so hard to get up in a dark room. The white screen (torch) of the iPhone is incredibly bright when in a dark room and is definitely noticeable. I only have circumstantial evidence that it works with an iPhone but it is fairly strong as scientifically it only takes quite a small amount of light to begin the chemical reaction ie the cortisol response, that triggers the natural waking process.

CT: Cortisol levels are higher for people under stress e.g. people of lower socio-economic status experience higher cortisol levels – so the quality of sleep and the quality of waking isn’t necessarily related to cortisol levels. Would you agree?

BG: Yes and no – people get used to or adapt to all sorts of different stimuli such as the sound of a train, snoring, a fan in the room (white noise) etc etc. If there is additional stimuli, i.e. more light, then this will assist the natural process of waking up. In saying this, the “Sunrise Simulator” is not the main method of allowing someone to awake refreshed, it is a mixture of using sleep science data as to sleep patterns in “normal” populations mixed with movement data we get from the iPhone’s accelerometer, to predict as accurately as possible, the optimum time to wake someone up. In future additions we will also change the “settings” based on other data around age, gender and potentially socio economic status – wouldn’t that be controversial!

CT: Are you able to elaborate on the iPsychologist feature. Specifically: which psychologist/s were involved, which approach is taken (I’m assuming CBT) and are you able to share any data on its efficacy?

BG: We used a local Psychologist who is also a University lecturer. They provided advice as to a number of different strategies and theories that could be used. As developers, the challenge for us was to develop a system that was able to be used and was useful, to a large range of users. Obviously some techniques would be better for different “conditions” so we had to go for one that was broadly helpful to all. Obviously self talk or autosuggestion has been around for 100’s of years. The Coue Method features heavily in our methodology. Basically it assumes the person is on the way to full health, they are getting better every day and that soon they will be much better and that there is light at the end of the tunnel. “Day by day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.” We didn’t try to reconstruct our own research as the Net and medical journals are full of information backing the assumptions of the system we use and that was suggested by our Psychologist. It is also a “popular” method that users hear about every day as they watch a show like Oprah and Dr Phil.

CT: You make the claim that “The biggest problem Doctors face is determining the accuracy of their patients self assessment when it comes to their sleeping patterns and then determining the best course of action based on fairly unreliable data. Now their patients can use our system and the Doctors will be able to determine vastly more accurate sleep and awake times with advanced statistics including; REM sleep, sleep stages 1 to 4 and even how long and how often users awoke during the night. This is obviously pretty powerful and will lead to vastly improved advice and outcomes”.

I was just wondering how you felt the app would fit into a diagnostic regime i.e. if sleep disturbances have got to the stage of seeking medical advice, the current approach would be formalised diagnostics such as sleep studies. How do you see the app fitting into that equation?

Angry Birds addiction you need to beat?

BG: We spoke to a number of Doctors about the App without doing it to get information but just because they were friends and we were excited about the App. It came as quite a surprise that they were actually quite excited about how the App could assist them in their day to day jobs. If you ask anyone who grumbles about their sleep how much they have, chances are that they will exaggerate their real circumstances often subliminally and without any real or measurable or recorded data.

At a bare minimum, SSA provides the time they went to bed and the time they got up. This data alone is very useful for Doctors. The amount of times they use the torch is also helpful mixed with the awake or “considerable movement” setting to determine awake time as it shows how often they are getting up during the night. This has a large impact on REM sleep in particular and can mean that people are never reaching the REM phase and this can cause a number of additional issues not easily recognisable by a doctor. The other issue is the expense of diagnostic studies that measure brain wave activity and how unnatural it is to sleep when you are in an unusual place with wires attached to your body.

SSA is just another tool for Doctors and patients and in the future we hope to include some more powerful reporting options to assist users and Doctors further. At the end of the day, any strategy that can be used to educate people about sleeping issues and to provide better data to Doctors is a very good thing.

The app – short review

Having used the app for only a few hours, my impression so far is that this is a very polished piece of code. It looks good, it’s intuitive and it has a real depth of features.  Whether it’ll improve your sleep or mental state is up to you. Like anything, if you maintain the discipline the approach requires, you may see some good results. I’ll certainly be trying it out over coming weeks and will give more impressions then. Kudos to Brett Galbraith as well for his detailed responses on the science behind the app.

Review score: 8/10

Cost: US$4.99 / AU $5.99

Get it here

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