Life Wellbeing Professor Vishaal Kishore and the science of loneliness

Professor Vishaal Kishore and the science of loneliness

Vishaal Kishore, Professor of Public Policy and Innovation at RMIT, confronting weaknesses in the health system. Photo: RMIT
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This week, in a wide-ranging interview with The New Daily, Professor Vishaal Kishore, Director of the Health Transformation Lab at RMIT, talked about how surviving the pandemic demands agile, bold thinking.

In the latest episode of the Covid Conversation podcast series, Professor Kishore said we need to find a new way to talk about the economy, health care and social issues. The idea is to build resilience into our society, so we don’t simply survive but thrive.

But saving the world from itself means understanding and tackling very human problems, such as loneliness. One response by the lab was to analyse loneliness as an evolutionary warning signal, as a threat to the species. By sheer coincidence, this work emerged just as half the world was going into lockdown.

The CaT Pin brooch monitors baseline conversation and sends a notification to family members or carers when the wearer is at risk of loneliness. Photo: RMIT

On a smaller scale, the Transformation Lab developed a loneliness brooch. This was designed to be worn by elderly people, and works by alerting family members that granddad or nanna are having few social interactions and are getting lonely. Professor Kishore told the story behind it, edited here:

“One of the members of my lab had worked in aged care. He had this idea and started working with people at RMIT.

“It’s drawn from the insight that the kinds of conversations you are having, and particularly the number of words you are speaking, and to an extent the length of the words you are speaking, can be an important lead indicator about your state of social isolation and indeed loneliness.

“The insight was, if there was a way for us to measure the number of words people were speaking, put that through an algorithm, could we get an understanding about when people start to become at-risk of becoming lonely, and all of the slew of health and mental health and social problems that are thrown up by loneliness.”

The health problems of loneliness include disrupted sleep, high blood pressure, increased depression, lower immunity and generally lower overall wellbeing.

From the idea of analysing conversation, came award-winning technology that measures a person’s vulnerability to loneliness and notifies family members of a growing threat. The technology is now being shrunk to fit inside a brooch. The next step?

“It’s going into a clinical trial process in an aged care facility. Just as soon as we can get into an aged care facilities in a more fluid way,” he said.

There’s some sharp irony here. Here’s a tool to help our most vulnerable people, but it can’t be tested because the participants are in strict no-visitor lockdown for their own protection.

There is also the problem that we can only respond to loneliness in family members and friends at a distance, via video calls. Is it enough?

“Resoundingly not. We’ve been doing some interesting focus groups with students at RMIT who have been learning primarily online. It’s interesting to hear what they find difficult about a fully digital learning experience. It’s the human, it’s the casual, it’s the social (that they’re missing). It’s the fact that social cues aren’t there, that body language isn’t there.

It turns out there is something irreplaceable about true human to human interaction.

“We can go a long way with online video conferencing, but the more we can bend those to be human in nature, the better.”

In the COVID Conversation podcast, Professor Kishore speaks at length about the demands being placed on the individual in terms of taking on health system roles during the pandemic, and how much we are up to it: how the rise of the individual is now being confronted with the need to be more community minded.

Click here to listen to John Elder’s chat with Professor Vishaal Kishore.

He also tells just how bold our policy-makers will need to be in our brand new world.

For this and more, access the entire interview, here.

This podcast is supported by the Judith Neilson
Institute for Journalism and Ideas