Will Norbu Stress Control App be able to replace psychologists?
Norbu is an AI trainer for stress management based on knowledge and experience in medicine, yoga, awareness practice and digital product development. Norbu was created by CEO and investor Alexander Zheleznov, CTO and yoga instructor Kirill Mironov and Dr. Dmitry Dolgov. This is a story about the future of technology that develops stress management skills and the perspective of replacing psychologists with artificial intelligence.
Business, time pressure, stress.
I’m 44, and 20 years of my life I’m in business. I have been dedicating the last 4 years to my company, which creates mobile applications. The state of stress is familiar to me, as there are no ready-to-use recipes in our field and many unpredictable situations occur. For the last 10 years I have been studying the work of consciousness and how to make my life a little more harmonious and calm. My practical experience, as well as experience of my colleagues, friends and even my own parents, who spent years breathing, meditating and practicing yoga, has shown that it is possible to get out of a continuous cycle of thoughts and find some inner space for relaxation — it doesn’t take much time and effort to do that. Time and effort are required though for regular exercises to start changing oneself, learning how to live without stress. It takes time to adapt and develop the habit of being in a more balanced state.
Now we live in a unique time — society is becoming more open, yet there is less free time available. There are fewer and fewer “live” contacts. At the same time, the requirements for quality and presentation of information are increasing. We do not want to attend standard and general training sessions and increasingly prefer individual sessions with a competent mentor who is always in touch. In reality often this approach is very difficult to implement: trips, business trips, distances, lack of free time, conflicting schedules… AI Norbu Trainer is designed to help gain adaptation in such circumstances. With his help, you can balance your own state and manage the processes in your life with 24/7 access from anywhere in the world, including self-isolation.
Who if not us?
Interest in awareness and stress management practices is steadily growing. Considering recent events in the world, this trend will continue to evolve.
In 2018, I was sure that there were already many applications that taught basic stress management skills. However it turned out that there were only three such products at the time: Calm, Headspace and Meditopia.
Not only wasn’t any of them translated into Russian (although Meditopia is now available in Russian), they all consisted of a huge number of audio recordings, guided meditative and breathing practices, without any explanation of their principles and mechanisms of influence on the body. But most importantly, these applications relieve stress through distraction, attention switching methods. So when the user encounters stress again, he or she begins to be stressed. There were still no applications that would train the user to respond effectively to stress so that they don’t end up back in it.
That’s when I realised what I, as a user, would like to see in a stress management application — a brief, effective technique based on a simple sequence of actions that I understand, that have a scientific explanation, and would allow me to develop basic stress management skills. Skills that would be useful when dealing with modern reality. This method was created by our team and we called it Norbu MBSC (Mindfulness-Based Stress Control).
AI vs stress
A little later there was an idea to collect and analyse statistics of user interaction with particular parts of the method: playing, breathing, meditation. With the help of analysis results and data accumulation, we will eventually offer personal training programs and functionality of tracking the effectiveness of these training based on artificial intelligence.
What does medicine say?
I am 52, for 10 years I had been working as a doctor, and then for 12 years successfully built a career as a manager in a foreign company, and at the same time studied the methods of training and development of the employees. Gradually I focused more on educational projects. Since 1992, I have been studying and practicing various methods of managing my own mind, breathing and body.
While practicing medicine, I realized that treating people without their own work on themselves and consciousness is not effective. Very often a person drives himself into problems and diseases with his own thinking and behaviour. As a result, one has to see doctors again and again, and the disease becomes chronic and progressive. It is obvious that along with the body it is necessary to work with the human mind.
30 years of searching for ways and practices of controlling personal consciousness led me to the idea of creating an application — with this idea I came to Alexander. Throughout the year, we discussed it from different angles. I had a desire to create a training application for managing one’s own state of mind. Alexander suggested focusing on a more specific, narrowly focused task — to help a person who is under stress. Stress is a huge problem for people around the world, and every year the situation gets worse. An application that helps people cope with stress will make the world a better place and help people to be healthier. I liked that idea. A little bit later Kirill joined the discussion of the methodology and its realization in the application. He devoted many years to the study of yoga and breathing practices. So we got a unique Mindfulness-Based Stress Control method for Norbu application.
Yoga practitioner and CTO
For me breathing is an instrument that I use constantly in daily life and in yoga practice. The habit of conscious breathing gives me the ability to manage my condition: when we are in a stressful situation, we can calm ourselves not only through mental exercises, but also through conscious breathing.
Each person, depending on his experience, understands the word “yoga” in his own way. For one it is a spiritual practice, for others it is fitness, for some it is a way of life. We have included in Norbu MBSC (Mindfulness- Based Stress Control) the most fundamental principle of yoga — the ability to manage your emotional state, and therefore successfully adapt to change. The skill of managing emotions makes the mind calm, not exposed to stress. Thanks to the soft and balanced approaches incorporated in the MBSC methodology, Norbu is suitable for everyone, regardless of experience in awareness practices and personal abilities. We have tried to make Norbu like an old friend who is always in touch and always being the shoulder in a difficult moment.
Choosing the technology for the development of the application, we decided to use Flutter — a cross-platform framework that can quickly develop a prototype and turn it into a working on ios android applications. For us, the ease of realization of any design and the convenience of working with animation were also important. In order to implement animation, our designer Tatiana mastered Rive — a system that allows to animate anything in a convenient editor and embed it into Flutter application with one movement
Microcontrollers and emotions
In addition to artificial intelligence, we are now working to study and understand the patterns in the structure of human breathing to create a hardware solution to evaluate the emotional state. Using special sensors connected to a microcontroller, we record and analyze graphs of breathing frequency, orientation and fragmentation in different emotional states. We also start to study HRV and will soon connect neurofeedback.
The objective biofeedback on the human condition will allow the user to understand their own condition even better and get individual advice from AI.
Active adaptation according to Norbu MBSC method
There are two types of adaptation to change in nature.
1.Passive adaptation is an adjustment based on the principle of endurance development. In case of stress it is a mechanism of adaptation to live in conditions of tension, anxiety. This type of adaptation in a person turns on automatically, without effort, passively. Usually people in stress want to be distracted and switch their attention to something else. Most applications and techniques work in the same manner: disconnect from the problem and relax. This type of adaptation aims to restore hormonal balance after experiencing negative emotions.
2) Active adaptation is an adjustment based on the principle of development of stability, tolerance. In the case of stress, it is a task to teach the brain to react to it in a different way, to turn on stress limiting systems before stress passes from the level of positive mobilization to the level of negative emotions. This type of adaptation needs to be trained as a useful skill, i.e. to be active. As a result, a person is trained to remain in even, calm state while in stress. The quality of stress resistance develops and stress becomes not an enemy but a resource for action.
The Norbu MBSC method (Mindfulness Based Stress Control) includes active adaptation, for the development of which 5–10 minutes per day of regular training is sufficient. A sequence of 6 steps triggers active adaptation mechanisms so that they continue to work even after the session with Norbu Trainer is over.
6 steps Norbu MBSC
1. Focus the user’s attention on the problem and evaluate it in points.
2. Neuron Massage game — activation of peripheral vision, activation of other type of attention and evolutionary brain resources.
3. Parasympathetic breathing session disables stress patterns in the brain, activates stress-limiting adaptation systems and opens up new opportunities for creativity and inspiration.
4. Meditation fixes the effect of adaptation and breathing.
5. Control self-evaluation of stress strength — feedback that shows user the effectiveness of the training.
6. Clear statistics of adaptation progress form a steady habit of the user to cope with stress.
The effect of Norbu’s “Neuron Massage” game
In a stressful state, the “tunnel vision” is activated. The brain is intensely focused on problems and difficulties, without noticing anything around. This is normal, you could even say “healthy” stress, it is useful in small doses. However, it becomes destructive when we begin to scroll through the same negative situation in our minds for hours and days, as if chewing “thought gum” — sticking to it and re-experiencing again. This kind of stress is bad for the body. To get rid of it, we need to break the “vicious circle” and change the type of attention.
Norbu game, where user follows the movement of balls, includes the right type of attention — defocused. The player, who carefully monitors the movements of the balls and does not lose sight of them, goes to the next, more complex level. Stress prevents you from doing it easily. To move on, you have to use defocused (“peripheral”) attention again and again — then the stress is reduced, the brain enters a relaxed state of attentiveness, adaptation is activated.
Benefits of NORBU parasympathetic breathing
To reinforce the relaxation effect and fully enable the adaptation mechanisms, the application leads user to the next stage. Under the influence of stress, the body experiences a hormonal storm. It is necessary to restore balance at the hormone level, otherwise stress will remain. We need to develop adaptation of stress resistance. It is impossible to do it by force of will, but you can “reboot” the system with a special type of breathing. It is known that under stress we breathe more often, and in a calm state we breathe deeply and relaxed.
Norbu’s parasympathetic breathing has two key points:
1. Slowing down the breathing rhythm.
2. Pause between exhalation and inhalation.
This triggers a stress-limiting, adaptive effect. We can often hear people say to someone who is really anxious “exhale deeply” — in fact it is an advise to be without air for a while. This method has long been known — a slow exhalation and a pause without breathing. The same principle is used in yoga — we hold our breath without air to reduce the stress.
Norbu tells the user that during training it is better to sit with a straight back, breathing should come from the abdomen. The user pauses for as long as he can, but in comfort, without tension. He tries to breathe as slow as possible and chooses his own breathing frequency. If he wants to breathe more deeply, it is possible with the help of buttons “+” and “-” to adjust breathing to oneself.
Having learnt such breathing with “an empty hold” (a pause between an exhalation and a breath), it is possible to apply it in daily life. First, with the help of Norbu App we train the skill of such breathing, and after learning how to use it, we can practice it anywhere — in transport, at work or during a walk. Norbu Breathing is a stress-relieving, relaxing and adaptive tool that’s always at hand.
NORBU Restorative Meditation
The third stage is meditation, which is associated with the recovery of the body during adaptation. During stress, the body is captured by one of the oldest parts of the brain — the reptile, which is responsible for survival (“beat, fight, freeze”), the ability to be aware is disabled. The reactions of the brain and body become unpredictable, super strong, chaotic and often destructive. Game and breathing Norbu brings the brain back to effective work by activating the frontal lobe, which is responsible for objective evaluation, search and decision making, control of emotions. Now stress loses the ability to control the brain. Stress-limiting systems start the mechanisms of body recovery, relaxation and adaptation.
To allow these mechanisms of recovery and adaptation to work, we continue to relax in meditation and try not to follow thoughts, allow the brain to rest as much as possible and learn from the experience. During meditation, pleasant sensations can arise — this is the effect of stress-relieving systems triggered by play and breathing.
Adaptation and stress management training
The feedback stage is necessary to consolidate the results. Before and after training, the user evaluates the stress level to estimate the change in his condition. Usually before training the stress level is higher and after training the stress level decreases. This is a subjective evaluation. Norbu also records the result of the game — how often the user loses and how often he wins. This is an objective statistics which shows how the type of attention we need is trained. It also evaluates breathing frequency — correct breathing triggers adaptation processes, restores the body and restores hormone balance. The value of Norbu statistics is that it provides an opportunity to observe both subjectively and objectively how the skill of stress resistance is being developed.
For the skill to be formed, you need to train for 21–30 days, and to make it a habit, you need another 60–90 days. The statistics are collected; eventually,Norbu AI Trainer will select the training program and give recommendations on how to develop the adaptation skill.
The stress management methodology used in Norbu App is based on the knowledge of experienced masters of yoga, contemplation and has been tested over the centuries, as well as the long experience of our team members (total experience of 3 people 64 years). In addition to this, we found it important to carry out an independent clinical study of Norbu MBSC methodology. Specialists of the Military Medical Academy developed the design of such a study, but the necessary investment (about 5 million rubles) in the study was not comparable to the budget that we had at that time. So we postponed the study for the future. Although the Norbu method has been tested by our personal long-term practice and we are fully confident in it, it was nevertheless important for us to be sure of the scientific reasoning of this approach. This is how we began working with PubMed, one of the largest databases of medical and biological publications created by the U.S. National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) based on the biotechnology section of the U.S. National Library of Medicine. The information available there also needs to be filtered and checked, but overall the level of trust in this database in the scientific community is very high. This work took several months to ensure that our methodology is scientifically correct.
Here are some links to research:
AI systems instead of psychologists?
Of course, it is too early for artificial intelligence to compete with psychologists — a person’s emotional state has too many variables and too complicated connections, which machines are not yet able to calculate. At the same time, already now there are more and more startups offering chatbots and AI-systems as virtual psychologists. For example, Ellie knows how to identify depression, Karim provides psychological support to Syrian refugees, and the neural network created at MIT is able to recognize voice patterns that indicate depression.
Given the growing demand for psychological care and the corresponding rise in prices for specialist services, getting to a good psychologist today is not so easy. Moreover, in some cases people do not want to communicate with other people. In these conditions, the potential of applications that make psychological aid available to everyone is becoming more obvious.
In spite of all this, one should hardly expect psychologists to be replaced with machines in the nearest future. But AI-systems are being trained, and in the future AI-psychologists will be able to give more accurate answers to existing problems, just as it already happens in the field of jurisprudence.
At the present time, it is safe to say that machines and people can work together more effectively, using each other’s strengths — the accuracy of computer calculations and human empathy.
Today applications can collect data on the psycho-emotional state of a person that can be analyzed quantitatively and qualitatively. Based on these data, AI can learn and help the user direct efforts to change these parameters in the right direction through different exercises. This can result in the development of active adaptation to stress, a more stable emotional state and the restoration of hormone balance. This is a good basis for the work of any psychologist and psychotherapist. This is the direction in which Norbu will develop.
Apps on the basis of bio- and neurofeedback will not replace the work of a living psychologist, but can become one of the components of the process of psychological assistance, bringing in this way quick and lasting results.
Still, the main difference between a Norbu Trainer and a psychologist is in learning stress resistance and applying adaptation training on a repeated and daily basis. The App allows you to practice at a convenient time, strictly confidential (which is important for public people) and in all life situations — regardless of whether you need psychological help or you are completely healthy and confident. By independently developing the necessary skills with Norbu, anyone can keep their psychological state in great condition.
Dear friends, download Norbu app, use it and share your experiences and impressions in the comments)