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Synchronous symptoms (April 27th) by Oli

At my workplace, we regularly have short meetings where we check in with each other. Up until recently, most people seemed to be doing ok all things considered, of course with some personal ups and downs. But last week it seemed as though the pandemic was starting to weigh on nearly everyone I spoke to, people that I work with, people in my family, my friends…even the tone of messaging on social media seemed gloomier and more disheartened. I found myself nodding in agreement with others upon hearing reports of feeling tired and struggling with motivation.

This begs the question: is large scale synchronisation of mood across a population possible? Mood is something that feels very personal, but when there are huge global changes it seems reasonable to suggest that collective phases and swings could exist. What could be more relevant to public mental health than uncovering phasic shifts in public mood in response to a crisis?

People sometimes talk about the spirit of the nation, but it is hard to determine how much of this perceived spirit is a reflection of trends in media narratives and how much is a true movement in feeling. Thinking carefully about measurement is key here, what to measure, how to measure and when to measure? As I write this, dozens of COVID surveys are being distributed to the public by a range of research groups. This is an opportunity to learn about how to ethically and effectively detect and understand the movements of sentiment in the population to inform and improve public mental health.

For many, the prospect of research groups tracking how we feel is far too close to the realisation of a surveillance state. I’m personally open to this type of data being used for research because I’ve been taking part in a study collecting information about my weekly mood for over a year now, but I can understand the worries about the use of data. Putting aside dystopian concerns around control, run-of-the-mill personalised commercial adverts are bad enough already without the Beer and Ice Cream Industry receiving updates when I’m having a rubbish day.


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