“You are what you eat” is a well-trodden term in health food and basic nutrition. But consider the staggering amounts of digital content we consume on our devices, on a daily basis? Does the adage hold true for our media diets as well?
Michael Phillips Moskowitz, the founder of the wellness app, Moodrise, believes so. He is on a mission to make the world a happier, more focused, more energising, loving, tender, considerate, and calmer place, by using curated “treatments” of photos, videos, sounds, music, graphics and art that help address different varieties of mood disorders.
He speaks to Ayesha Kohli, Editor of Creative Sparq, about his pioneering work in the emerging field of Digital Nutrition™, and shares his vision for the “world’s first truly digital drug company.”
Please tell me about your wellness app “Moodrise” that has been launched recently. How does it help people?
There is a growing body of scientific literature and evidence linking specific types of content with specific neurotransmitters that influence or regulate mood.
But what might make some people red with laughter, or flush with sensations of love and affection, can arouse fear in other parties. A cute dog video, for instance, commonly triggers dopamine (the molecule strongly correlated with sensations of pleasure) and oxytocin (sometimes called the “cuddling hormone”), but if the viewer experienced childhood trauma associated with a dog bite, the same video might trigger the fight or flight sensation (norepinephrine and epinephrine).
We are using hyper-specific provisions of content for twin purposes:
1) For self-conditioning or “attunement” – helping people achieve more desirable mood states, by self-administering tiny doses of content to release brain chemicals commonly associated with pleasurable or positive feelings; and
2) Working to reduce the incidence of unhealthy digital behaviour – by helping users derive greater benefits from specific digital content, during shorter periods of exposure.
Over time, people can (and we hope, will) start to intuitively associate nature videos with GABA, sports videos with endorphins, kissing or random kindness videos with oxytocin, and so on.
You have a diverse background, covering fashion, editorial, the arts, e-commerce and now healthcare. What prompted you to explore the healthcare space?
As a lifelong sufferer of Type-II Bipolar Disorder, I’ve struggled mightily with my own mental health. From periods of hyper-productivity (in my twenties and thirties) to deep and crippling depressions, or phases of relatively robust health to short- and even long-term in-patient hospitalisation, I know what it means to suffer privately and publicly with symptom sets that are hard to address– even with the support of medication.
Coming from several generations of doctors in the family didn’t provide any real advantages other than early detection. I certainly never anticipated following my father or grandfather into medicine. The fact that I’m now focused on one very specific vertical in healthcare is really a stunning coincidence. A wonderful accident. The truth is, I stumbled across a big idea and felt utterly compelled to pursue it, and make every earthly effort to help people in pain.
So what were these a-ha moments behind the big idea of Digital Nutrition™?
In 2016, I had the privilege of being appointed the first-ever Entrepreneurship Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School. I spent the first of what turned out to be several semesters concentrating on a single question: what did the world’s biggest brands and multi-billion dollar businesses all have in common? What, specifically, in their DNA, or strategy, or operational structure gave them the power to capture share of mind and share of wallet, everywhere on earth? What I discovered is that the behemoths (very often) share at least three traits in common. Three foundational pillars.
The first: psychopharmacology. The world’s biggest brands and businesses tend to seize, traffick in, exploit, or leverage drugs. In most cases, these aren’t controlled substances but common brain chemicals. What scientists call neurotransmitters (NT). So I started to dig deeper to develop an at least rudimentary understanding of NTs. I relied heavily on aid and support from the director of a research lab at McGill–Dr. Nathan Spreng, a former Harvard fellow and previously a clinical investigator at Cornell–who helped me identify the six most common NT’s that audiences everywhere seem to gravitate towards.
Acetylcholine - for focus
Dopamine - for rewards and confidence-building
Endorphins - for energy
GABA - for calm
Oxytocin - for love and bonding
Serotonin - for happiness
The second: behavioural ravines. By that I mean: high frequency behaviors; or valleys of addiction. Utterly repetitive daily activities or inclinations. I wasn’t interested in once-in-a-lifetime purchases (homes or collector cars) or what people do once a month–like shopping for basics and home essentials. That's e-commerce. And that entire category is tough, with advantages flowing unfairly to Amazon.
We then looked at the food category. Contenders in the grocery business (like Whole Food or Safeway) or competitors in the food delivery vertical (like Seamless or Deliveroo) are focused on a minimum of 21 purchase decisions a week. That’s still a tough business.
Then, we looked at tobacco. And the figures are considerably larger. Cigarette brands might “own” 10 to 20 moments a day; or even 30 in the case of heavy smokers. And even if smoking tragically shortens people’s lives by 10-years on average–bringing women’s longevity down from 82 to 72 years, and men from 78 to 68–the predicted lifetime value (LTV) of a consumer frequently peaks at $100K. That’s 50-fold the value of an LTV for a common shopper.
But the bigger opportunity, by several orders of magnitude, is digital messaging.
The third: a childlike sense of wonder and awe. The devices we use every day seem to exploit our fundamental nature as humans–as inquisitive social creatures, that lean towards light.
The depth of addiction is almost unrivalled. What we see in cell phones is an almost irresistible magnetism; a tractor-beam-like draw, even with toddlers reaching out to claw, clutch, cry for and grab at their parents’ cell phones. Watch them. They moan and scream when phones are taken away.
What we hope to do, and are endeavouring to accomplish with Moodrise, is to leverage light, the power of social interaction, and the curative potential of content to achieve better behavioral health outcomes. Healthier brains. Healthier awarenesses. Healthier lives.
Can you share your future plans for Moodrise?
In the short term, we’re scheduled to release four more products in relatively speedy succession. By mid-March, we’ll debut our PillCasting™ platform: an audio program for Google Home and Alexa, brought to you by Moodrise. By mid-April, expect to see the Moodrise 1000: an award program recognizing (and celebrating) the top one thousand pieces of digital content online, correlated with desirable mood states. And by May, audiences will find an Apple Watch product to help monitor and track mood states from moment to moment. In the long-term, we aim to become the world’s first truly digital drug company.
Can you share any evidence that exposure to the creative disciplines has a positive benefit on our health?
There is a wealth of academic literature addressing this subject. We’ve collected studies from peer-reviewed journals and placed them directly in the app. Find them there, heavily concentrated in the mobile experience, academic citations that we’ve carefully matched with individual pieces of content.
According to Iva Fattorini, who previously held the role of Chairman Arts and Medicine Institute at the Cleveland Clinic, “a study of 200 patients showed that music therapy decreased levels of anxiety, pain and depression and improved mood. Elsewhere, in the UK, doctors are being encouraged to prescribe art lessons as part of a £1.8 million UK government strategy.
If you had to suggest a government policy intervention involving the “wellness” industries” that could make a positive impact on society in your view, what might that be?
Government interventions are only instruments of last resort. We strongly prefer efforts and initiatives by industry leaders to formulate and adopt smart, responsible policies to govern rules of play.
We, for instance, rely on a set of three sacred and unalterable principles to guide and inform all of our activities: internally and externally, in matters of design, engineering, ethics, and philosophy: be science first (rely on current research, in peer-reviewed journals, from the world’s leading investigators and centers of inquiry); be science friendly (make it as simple as possible for lay people to see, read, and understand the supporting research); and always do the right thing (act with unimpeachable standards of integrity, and protect privacy at all costs).
As technological innovations continue to disrupt numerous industries, what do you see as the biggest challenges over the next twenty years.
These aren’t specifically born of or unseverably tied to technology, but I think there are five (5) areas urgently requiring attention and address in the next 20 years:
the future of the nation state–whether or whither;
the politics of regime change–how to achieve more consistent outcomes in post-conflict rehabilitation in weak or failing states;
the (current) crisis in political accountability, in Democracies;
the future of sacred space, divine practice, and spiritual renewal; and
major population migrations–aggravated or accelerated by climate change
“A serial founder committed to delivering experiences that enhance emotional resilience and boost behavioral health”, follow Michael Phillips Moskowitz on LinkedIn
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About The Interviewer
A brand storyteller, Ayesha Kohli is the founder of communications consultancy Sparq Communications and the Editor of Creative Sparq. She launched the site in 2017 to showcase different perspectives on creativity and creative thinking. Passionate about people, culture, education, leadership, technology and trends, she loves championing emerging talents and new businesses. Connect with her on LinkedIn.