Technology dominates how people interact with the world, and is increasingly used as a tool to support health and wellbeing. Researchers at Simon Fraser University (SFU) are taking a close look at the ways humans use technology to monitor activities, track workouts, motivate behaviour and calm anxieties. Their goal is designing a more user-friendly and human-centered tech experience that supports better mental health.

Alissa Antle is an innovator and professor at SFU’s School of Interactive Arts and Technology (SIAT), a member of the Royal Society of Canada’s College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists, and a Faculty of Communication, Art and Technology Distinguished Researcher. Her work pushes the boundaries of computation to enhance the ways people think and learn. A leader in ethical child-centered technology research, Antle and her team at the Tangible Embodied Child-Computer Interaction Lab (TECI) develop interactive technologies to support children’s cognitive and emotional development.

Alexandra Kitson is an NSERC post-doctoral award winner and researcher in the TECI Lab, supervised by Antle. An SFU SIAT alumnus, Kitson’s work focuses on technology to improve wellbeing, and has spanned biowearables to virtual reality (VR) to lucid dreaming and the experience of viewing Earth from space. She is currently leading a team of researchers, mental health professionals and youth in designing VR technology to support emotion regulation skills development for youth. She recently presented several works at the 2024 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI) in Hawaii while acting as an Associate Chair of the conference.

Antle and Kitson’s paper, Supporting Cognitive Reappraisal With Digital Technology: A Content Analysis and Scoping Review of Challenges, Interventions, and Future Directions, is an ongoing research collaboration with Dr. Petr Slovàk, from King’s College London.

The paper focuses on an emotion regulation technique called cognitive reappraisal (CR), the process by which a person re-assesses a situation and its significance to change its emotional impact, for example, by asking could there be another way to think about this? In the paper, the authors detail the challenges of implementing and training CR and offer design insights that may lead to new ways for digital tools to support CR skills development, and ultimately improve mental health.

 

We spoke with Alissa Antle and Alexandra Kitson about their work.

 

What is the process and goal of cognitive reappraisal (CR)? How do you approach it using technology?

Cognitive reappraisal is a therapeutic term from psychology that involves the emotion regulation strategy of reassessing or reevaluating the meaning or importance you give to a situation in order to change how you feel. In our paper, we describe the process of cognitive reappraisal in three steps: (1) identifying your initial thoughts and feelings (‘how will this situation impact me?’); (2) generating an alternative thought (‘what’s another way to think about this?’); and (3) applying the most plausible alternatives while monitoring change in your feelings (‘how do I feel now?’).
In our paper, we provide evidence that suggests the need for a shift from the traditional model of skill building through information delivery to a model that provides real time support during everyday emotional moments. We outline opportuities to create such real time supports by building on the increasing prevalence of augmented reality/virtual reality devices, wearables and artificial intelligence (AI) chatbots.

What are some of the challenges of CR—and how does virtual reality (VR) or other technology help overcome these challenges?

In our paper, we present 11 key challenges of cognitive reappraisal implementation and training. Two of the underaddressed challenges are interoception and reappraisal failure. Interoception is the identification of sensations from inside the body, which are cruicial when a person initially identifies they are having a heightened emotion response in the process of cognitive reappraisal. When a person has trouble being in touch with their inner body sensations, it prevents accuracte evaluation of an experience. Reappraisal failure is where a person tries to change how they think about the situation but then fails to change how they feel or feels worse off. This can happen when people attend to an emotion late in the unfolding or when people have low confidence.

VR can offer people-situated and embodied experiences that feel almost lifelike, providing opprtunities to practice CR in a safe context that may better prepare them for those moments that happen in everyday life. For example, before an important presentation, you put on a VR headset that shows a simulation of a stage with a live audience. You practice multiple times to build confidence. When the real presentation comes, you start to choke up, but then you remember your VR training and your anxiety melts away.

Your work encompasses the interdisciplinary study of technology and psychology. Why is it important to focus on psychological aspects of interactive technologies?

As we develop and study new uses for emerging interactive technologies in mental health, it is critical that our designs are grounded in understandings of how people develop adaptive emotion regulation strategies and where the challenges are—where they need extra or different kinds of support to develop skills. A deep understanding of psychological mechanisms by which people learn emotion regulation skills as well the processes that explicate how people successfully regulate their emotions are required to develop effective systems. We also need to understand how we will ultimately use these new applications in everyday life.  

Tell us about your experience working with young people to develop interactive technology. What are young people teaching you?

Antle: When we work directly with young people in understanding their lived experiences and enable them in providing input to our technological designs, there are always two things that I learn as a researcher. The first, is that as we see their lived experiences viewed through the lens of what we know theoretically and therapeutically, abstract concepts and processes become real, they become concrete and grounded for us in ways that create deeper understanding as well as empathy. Second, we are also invariably surprised by their willingness to participate authentically and by the deep insights some of them offer into their own lived experiences and needs. This is why it is so valuable to develop methods to work directly with youth to design emerging technologies that may enable them to improve their mental health.

Kitson: As an example, over the past two years we worked with high school students aged 15 to 18 in identifying opportunities for VR to support skills learning of CR. These young people shared the kinds of challenges they faced when implementing CR from their lived experiences, including wanting to change aspects of a situation rather than their own thinking, and experiencing intense emotions that overwhelmed critical thinking. To address these challenges, teens proposed using VR to create external representations of internal thoughts, much like how they use tableaus in drama class to show the audience what a character is thinking and feeling.

As researchers engaged in work that stimulates the imagination, can you tell us about a memorable research experience? What has surprised you about the human experience?

Kitson: A memorable experience happened during an SFU Surrey campus open house where we presented to the public a prototype of a VR experience that we designed to support emotion identification and cognitive reappraisal. A high school student tried it out for 15 minutes while his mom remarked to me, “I’ve never seen him so animated or talk about his feelings in such an open way.” To me, this signaled the powerful potential of VR to help young people with emotion regulation. It underscored the idea that VR is not only an entertainment or productivity device, as many people would believe, but could be beneficial for our emotional wellbeing and mental health.

Antle: I think one of the impacts I can have as a researcher in emerging interactive technologies is the ability to change the current narrative of what is possible and what we think is valuable through our imagination. Through our innovations and investigations we can change what people imagine they can and should build with new technologies like VR, AI and smart devices. Through our work with youth, we are also changing the narrative of how these technologies should be developed.

Through our imagination we can present a vision of what we think has value to our society. When we innovate with emerging technologies and work with youth to create prototype applications that support the development of their emotion regulation skills, we are creating a narrative and asserting the value that emotional wellbeing and mental health of our young people matters. We are making a value statement with our research—and with our imagination.   

What is coming up next in this field of research at SFU?

We have learned a great deal about the challenges people face in implementing and training cognitive reappraisal skills and the potential opportunities that emerging technologies offer to address some of the barriers. The next step in this project is applying our design requirements to develop a technologically supported CR intervention for young people. We would love to hear from you. Please connect with us at the TECI Lab if you are interested in learning more about the project and opportunities to collaborate.

 

For more read the SFU News story: SFU SIAT researcher uses virtual reality to help teen mental health and visit the Tangible Embodied Child-Computer Interaction Lab (TECI) website.

 

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