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mental health mondays :: it sees you when you're sleeping

now you know my bed time.
this is the second in a continuing series of commentaries/ reviews on mental health-oriented apps. while our phones and tablets may not have evolved to the point where they can read our state of mind from our palm print and inject us with the appropriate drugs [i'm certain that's what's coming on the iphone 6], there are a lot of apps out there that are designed to help you make little adjustments on your brain. this week, we're looking at an app called "sleep time". in case you hadn't heard, sleep is one of the most important factors in mental health. sleep deprivation on its own is classified as a mental disorder and it's a symptom of many others. also, one of the biggest problems that is caused by the various sorts of crazy meds is the disruption of sleep cycles that they can cause. so getting yourself to an optimum sleeping schedule is incredibly important for your mental health.

as you might guess, this app is designed to help you with your sleep cycle, monitoring you and helping you figure out if you're getting the quality and quantity of sleep you need. i downloaded the free version to see what i thought of the application before committing to the paid one. this is pretty cheap of me, since the paid version is only $1.99 and has considerably more options- which we'll get to later.

the concept of the app is pretty neat: it uses the built-in accelerometer in your phone to register the subtle movements of your body as you sleep. [if you're not sure what an accelerometer does, here's a primer.] on the one hand, it's kind of like a super-spiffy alarm clock- it'll wake you with your choice of tones within a thirty minute window that you specify. the idea of giving you that window is that "sleep time" will measure when you are in your lightest stage of sleep and wake you then, rather than when you're in a deep sleep and will have more trouble emerging from the haze. if you set your alarm for seven, "sleep time" will awaken you sometime between six-thirty and seven, based on when it thinks you'll be most able to handle the experience.

but that's not all "sleep time" can do. it also graphs your sleep cycle, so that in the morning, you can see how much time you spent awake, in light sleep and in deep sleep. it analyses your "sleep efficiency", or whether or not you're getting the proper amount of each type of sleep. on the free version, you can store five days [or nights] worth of data and on the paid version, you get unlimited storage. of course, if you want to preserve your data, you can also just take a screen shot of the day's [or night's] graph. the data is displayed by week and by day, so you can see how you're doing on an ongoing basis and helps you determine if going to bed at a certain time allows you to get more or better sleep. you'll want to track your energy levels and mood on your own, or else the data isn't going to be as useful as it might otherwise be, especially if you suffer from a mental or mood disorder.

if you'd like, "sleep time" will also play soothing sounds to help relax you and encourage you to sleep. it'll even make sure that when the sounds stop [which you program], they gradually disappear as opposed to cut off sharply, so that there is no jarring change in the ambient noise that might cause you to awaken. i'll be honest, i haven't used that function, because there's only one soundscape available on the free version. while i'm sure that gentle waves are incredibly soothing to most people, i'm never able to overcome the nagging fear that listening to such things is pure new age silliness and that thought would keep me up at night. also, i would have to choose between sleeping with earphones, which is uncomfortable, or treating dom to my soundscape and thus having him confirm that what i was doing was new age silliness. the paid version of the app has more soundscapes available, possibly something a little less cliche.

that's the app in a nutshell, but the real question is... how well does it work? to that i say: i didn't shell out the two bucks for the paid version.

i love the concept of this app. i love being able to see my sleep categorized and graphed and organised for me to interpret. but one of the stumbling blocks is that the app doesn't actually help you interpret. it doesn't explain what sleep efficiency is or how it is calculated and without that, it becomes difficult to put the information to any practical use. i checked on line and found out that anywhere north of 85% is what you should be aiming for, but again, that's something i did on my own. i would really prefer to have the information on how to use the data included in the app itself.

there are also a few logistical quirks that make it a bit finicky to work with. the first and most obvious one is that you have to sleep with your phone [or tablet] in the bed with you. as a lifelong restless sleeper and the indentured servant of five cats, this makes me nervous. and yes, at least once, my phone ended up registering the sleep cycle of my floor. still not sure who was responsible for that.

you also have to be careful about where you place the device. the app advises that you put it near your pillow, but this doesn't quite seem to cut it. what you really want is to place it near your head. that means that you can't have your head propped up on a lot of pillows, because that puts too much distance between you and the phone/ tablet. if you share your bed with someone else, that's fine, but clearly you want to make sure that you put your phone on the outside- not between the two of you. you also have to make sure that the device is close to your head, but not in a position where it can accidentally slide under your pillow. that's trickier than you might think.

the reason that you will want to be very cautious about placement is that the accuracy of the readings varies wildly depending on it and herein lies my biggest issue with the app. whether because it is too sensitive or not sensitive enough, the data just isn't as reliable as i'd hope. placement has a lot to do with it, but there are also some pretty serious inconsistencies that i can't attribute to just bad geography. the first night that i tried the app out, it registered me as being in light to deep sleep during periods where i was not only awake, but when i lifted the phone to see the time. i'm glad that it wouldn't necessarily leap to the conclusion that i was awake if the phone moved a little- perhaps i was dreaming- but lifting the phone off the bed and returning it to its original position is clearly something that should be a red flag that i'm awake and alert.

very promising. and very wrong.
when i was careful to place the phone as close to my ear as possible, i found that the data seemed a little more reasonable, but there were still times when i felt it wasn't quite hitting the mark. at least once, it registered me as waking several times during the night when i don't actually remember waking at all, but i guess that we could assume that i was only half-awake and didn't recall things properly. another night, though, it failed to register that i was awake when i got up and went to the toilet. that's a bad sign.

ultimately, this app succeeds or fails based on the accuracy of its readings. i could say that i wish there were more explanations of how the data was calculated- breathing rates, movement, etc.- but the big question is whether or not it can record sleep cycles correctly. and in my experience, it can't. if i can't trust it to know the difference between asleep and awake, i can't trust it to know the difference between light and deep sleep, right?

i'm a little bit bummed by this result, because the app does seem to have a lot going for it. if the readings were accurate, it could be a boon to people who suffer from frequent sleep problems. i used it once to monitor a nap i took after waking up and feeling decidedly unrefreshed and, interestingly, the nap registered as being more than two thirds rem/ deep sleep. considering that i frequently awake from such power naps feeling quite energised, it would follow that i'm using that period to catch up on deep sleep that i didn't get at night. but i can't feel confident in those results, because i know that others haven't been correct.

this app is extremely well-reviewed and i downloaded it based on a recommendation from psychology today, so i have to assume that it's working for some people. i just don't find that it stands up to the scrutiny that i put it through. my thoughts? if you think it might be fun to try, download the free version, because you have nothing to lose. if you're looking for help with a more serious sleeping problem, though, you'd be better off consulting professionals.

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