​Shock, vibrate or slowly wake: Can a wearable make you a morning person?

We explore whether the way tech wakes us up has an impact on our sleep and mood
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There are many, many devices on the market that claim to help you get a better night's sleep. Depending on the product, this is mostly achieved by hooking sensors up to you or your bed. These sensors track your movements during sleep then present the data to you so you can adjust your behaviour accordingly if you spent the whole night rolling around or getting up to pee.

The aspect we're interested in here though is less about how tech aims to get a handle on the quality of your zzz's, and more about how it aims to wake you up once you're done.

Last month I wrote up a review of Pavlok, a wearable that delivers a mild electrical 'zap' to your arm to effectively train you to give up your bad habits over time. But the team has developed another device called the Wake Up Trainer that does essentially the same thing, but is geared towards helping you get your lazy ass out of bed.

Sure, this concept isn't really new. We've seen plenty of tech over the past few years that tried to make a play for your alarm clock. Some of the most popular devices have incorporated smart or vibrating alarms, which slowly vibrate you out of bed rather than wake you up with a loud alarm. There are also many wearables and apps built on the premise that they can track your sleep cycle and wake you up at the optimal point.

But all of this talk about waking up got us wondering just how important the way you wake up really is to the quality of your sleep beforehand and your mood afterwards. From there we're interested in how wearable tech can make this process even nicer or if we can 'game' it and use wearables to supercharge our morning routines instead.

Understanding waking up

You might think that waking up is a simple process. Bits of your brain that were off are now on again, right? Well, kinda. But really it's a massively complex series of multiple processes, as all of your different brain centres respond differently between the states of sleep and wakefulness.

You could read about this subject for days, but basically there are at least 11 neurotransmitters and hormones that play a role in the sleep-wake cycle, from glutamate to dopamine. And what's important for us to understand here is it's not just a simple case of a switch turning on and off, which anyone who's had trouble waking up in the past will know all too well.

Instead, it can take a surprisingly long amount of time for your brain to switch into the wakefulness state. A study called The Process of Awakening by Thomas Balkin and Allen Braun found that: "Awakening from sleep entails rapid re-establishment of consciousness followed by the relatively slow (20-30 min later) re-establishment of alertness."

So it looks like there's a valid interest here in how that 20 to 30 minutes of still being a bit drowsy can be best spent. The problem? There has been less research into this than some of the other health and wellbeing habits that wearable tech is addressing.

I asked a sleep researcher whether my current obsession with getting to the bottom of how we wake up and what stimuli we use is just weird, or could I actually be onto something?

Neuroscientist Christine Buske, who has a PhD in cell and systems biology and runs the Bench2Business blog, told me that my obsession makes sense: "Yes, it is a bit like knowing you need to get up at 5am to catch a flight, and not sleeping well all night because you are worried you will miss the flight." (A feeling we probably all know well.)

Smart Alarms

​Shock, vibrate or slowly wake: Can a wearable make you a morning person?

Jawbone coined the term 'smart alarm', but I'll use it to describe a plethora of wearables that have bolted on a vibrating alarm to health and fitness features.

There are plenty of examples, but Jawbone and Fitbit were among the first to introduce it. Not only do these alarms vibrate, but they also promise to vibrate at the 'right' time. Jawbone's Smart Alarm claims to figure out your optimal wake up time based on 90 minute sleep cycles and then gently vibrate when it's the best time for you to wake up. But there are so many similar services out there that claim to do the same thing, like the popular app Sleep Cycle Alarm Clock and the website sleepyti.me.

I asked Christine Buske what she thought of this kind of tech. "Some wearables claim to know when you are in a light sleep and wake you in an 'optimal' window of 30 minutes, but they are not always that accurate," she told me. "Only a handful of devices have some sort of validation study to back them, and I think only one is FDA approved."

Sure they can make a good guess, but as Jordan Gaines Lewis points out on Psychology Today, there could be too many variables at play – personal sleep patterns, sleep latency and your recent sleep history – to make it accurate enough. In short, a smart alarm might help you to wake up feeling a bit better, but it's far from being an exact science.

Waking you up with a jolt

Pavlok has taken the idea of a Smart Alarm and, of course, added its sadistic touches with the Wake Up Trainer. The idea is that waking you up with a jolt will stop you faffing around with the snooze button, but will also wake you up to a state that is more productive.

I tried it myself and found that the first few nights I just had this weird feeling that a load of electrical power was attached to my arm and because of that I found it hard to sleep. But I got used to it by the third night and what I did find was the days I was woken up with a shock, I did actually get out of bed and get on with stuff.

I asked Maneesh Sethi, founder of Pavlok, why he wanted to torture us all at 7am. "It's electric biofeedback – it's just a stimulus. There's more electricity running in your brain and body all the time. Pavlok is more about the sensation. The zap is for users who are having trouble sleeping, need to take a nap, or really need a jolt out of bed."

​Shock, vibrate or slowly wake: Can a wearable make you a morning person?

So this isn't just for you to punish yourself. It's aimed at those who have real trouble getting up and may need a more extreme stimulus, or those who feel the best way to get themselves up in the morning is with something that provides a real, tangible sensation rather than a calming one. I can see how different people have different preferences. I'm from the cold shower and ten press ups first thing camp, so I can appreciate Sethi's thinking. But I wondered whether it's really setting us up well for the day or just sending our body into fight or flight mode.

Christine Buske told me: "I'd be concerned about the effect an electric shock (even mild) would have on stress response. You may not have a bad sleep before, but are you starting the day with elevated cortisol levels? Waking up with electric shock, it is interesting but does that mean we should be deterred from waking up? Unlikely right. Electric shock is also the go to protocol to use when needing to induce stress in rat and mice studies. Shock is then generally accepted to create a stress response."

But she agrees that it's likely all down to preference.

"If you're terrified of being shocked and you're still wearing a device that will shock you awake, you are likely going to have a restless sleep," she added. "On the flip-side, if you perceive that your method of waking up will be pleasant (e.g. for me it would be one of those lamps that slowly increase intensity to simulate a rising sun), then your sleep may be more restful and peaceful because you are 'gearing yourself up' for it like that."

This got me wondering whether it's less about preference and more about perception and mindset, an area we've explored in-depth in relation to fitness goals in the past.

"How we wake up I think is less relevant than how we perceive that wake up to be before we head to bed," said Buske. "There is no research on this that I was able to find, so I am going on principles in psychology from other studies and extrapolating from there."

Despite the lack of solid research in this area, it's fascinating stuff. Could we effectively 'train' ourselves to wake up with a jolt and find it fun and energising rather than cultivating feelings of dread? This ties back into the idea of using your wearable to anchor different states of mind, an NLP technique that means you can use certain thoughts, feelings, pressure points or physical states to invoke your own responses.

Is there an optimal way?

As much as I could sing the praises of being jolted awake with mild electricity, there are always those who will be horrified by the idea. There's no escaping the fact that we're not naturally meant to wake up with such an extreme stimulus.

When asked about the ideal way to wake up, Christine Buske told me: "The most effective way to wake up is to wake naturally. This is achievable for most people provided they get adequate sleep, and their sleep is of adequate quality. Anything that simulates a gentle, and natural, wake up and does not disturb your sleep cycle is the best way."

She makes a good point. But having said that, we're constantly screwing with our circadian cycles. So maybe we can change it up and do something else? Maneesh Sethi told me he recommends people trial a few different ways of using the Wake Up Trainer to see what works for them, including non-shock settings: "We've had some users who were afraid, and didn't fall asleep very easily. For those users, I recommend just using the vibration mode to gently wake themselves up."

Wearable tech and self improvement are closely linked. But to date there has been only a small amount of research into waking up, the sense of anticipation the night before, the stimulus you choose and the effect it has on your day after.

At this early stage, the most valid conclusion we can draw is probably that it's highly subjective, but worth exploring. Some people might need that jolt of intense biofeedback to get up. Other people's sleep would suffer before they were due to wake up and their stress levels may skyrocket during the day. In short, it sounds like if you're trying to become an early bird, there's still no easy fix.

How do you wake up in the mornings? Do you use technology to do it? Let us know in the comments.

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Becca Caddy


Becca has been writing about technology for nearly ten years. In that time she’s covered topics from robotics and virtual reality to simulated universe theory and brain-computer interfaces for a wide range of titles, including TechRadar, New Scientist, Wired UK, OneZero by Medium, Stuff, T3, Metro and many more.

She’s passionate about helping people wade through tech jargon to find useful products they’ll actually use – with a focus on health and wellbeing.

Becca is also interested in how scientific developments and technological advances will impact us all in the near future. Many of her features ask big questions about what’s in store for wearable technology, especially the potential of virtual reality and artificial intelligence.

She spends a lot of time interviewing researchers and academics to explore the ethical implications of a world increasingly filled with tech. She’s a big fan of science-fiction, has just traded in her boxing gloves for weight-lifting gloves and spends way too much time in virtual reality – current favourites include painting in TiltBrush and whizzing through space in No Man’s Sky.

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