Looking For Signals: A Way Forward For Better Emotional and Mental Health

13 DECEMBER 2022
By Feng Ying Xing

Who could have imagined that one day we would have tools to measure workload or emotional stress, in the same way the severity of a fever is measured with a thermometer. The more the accurate diagnosis, the more timely and accurate assistance we can offer to our family, friends and colleagues.  

Think of it like this: in Disney’s 2014 animated feature film, Big Hero 6,  the lovable Baymax was embedded with a special chip designed with a predictive emotive model, allowing it to offer a peaceful, nursing nature with an adorable personality to humans experiencing  stress.

The research I’m doing aims to do likewise.

Feng-MIT-001-5.jpg^ Feng with his lab mates who attended his talk in MIT

Trained as an engineer, I decided to venture beyond my core skill set, into a new field of study – that of neuroscience, and to research how work stress affects our brains and our physiological response. My journey began with a postgraduate study on the use of functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) at the Centre for Intelligent Signal and Imaging Research, in Universiti Teknologi PETRONAS (UTP). Discoveries from this area of research can lead to the development of a predictive model for emotion and brain capacity, allowing us to better predict and manage emotional and mental well-being.

I have been studying how to establish biomarkers from the brain (through fNIRS) and the body (Heart Rate Variability, respiration and Electrodermal Activity) to interpret how changes in workload-related stress can influence our cognitive performance.

fNIRS uses near-infrared light to measure changes in the outer cortex of the brain, providing neuroimaging that is safe, non-invasive, portable, and very affordable relative to other neuroimaging technologies. As such, it is an increasingly popular tool for research into the areas of neuroscience, sports science and rehabilitation.

Do stressed minds think alike?
There is the famous adage: in the face of danger, we either fight or flee. Similarly, stress, as an emotion,  can either enhance or hinder our cognitive ability – yet little is known about their causal relationship. Some people thrive in it, others crumble.

While there’s massive literature in the field of psychology, cognitive brain sciences and neurotechnology, interdisciplinary studies that attempt to piece them together are lacking - especially amongst the Asian population.

Through the Merdeka Award Grant, I had the opportunity to engage in a 4 month research attachment with the department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), U.S.A.

^ Photos at various spots on the MIT campus

Here, I had the privilege to work under the guidance of Dr. Satrajit Ghosh, an assistant professor from Harvard Medical School and a Principal Research Scientist at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research; and to discuss my topic of study with other researchers there.

 Apart from seeking constructive feedback to complete my dissertation, I was able to explore machine learning algorithms, useful to uncover hidden patterns across my current dataset which is pretty complex - comprising behavioural performance, brain haemodynamic data, physiological signals and subjective surveys.

These will reveal findings less attainable through manual algorithms, and provide more accurate interpretations of an individual’s mental state or performance.

My 3 Life Lessons At MIT
Beyond academics, there were other invaluable lessons as I experienced student life at one of the world’s top universities.  Notwithstanding, I had to deal with the stress of a new environment and new culture, as well as some self-imposed expectations to perform in the midst of other brilliant minds.  My biggest challenge when setting foot in MIT is dealing with my imposter syndrome, which hindered my confidence and interactions with people. Eventually, I learned to accept my limitations and be comfortable surrounded by brilliant people, and humbly learn from them.

While I received the highest score for presentation in the 2022 MIT BCS Teach Off Finals, during my stint, these three important takeaways from my time in MIT which provide an impetus for excellence in innovation and personal development.

Feng-MIT-004-02.jpg^ Feng presenting his research to the panel of judges and audiences

The first is the willingness of researchers to share knowledge for scientific progress.

Collaboration is favoured over competition. The scientific community there encourages new discoveries, rather than compete with each other, and do not expect younger researchers to reinvent the wheel.

Feng-MIT-005.jpg^ Team lunch - Professor Satra with his students and staffs (Harvard/MIT)

^ Feng attending orientation event with international students at MIT

Secondly I learnt the value of work-life balance. In Asian culture, we tend to skip our rest time and social activities, to catch up on work, even if it costs our health. I was fascinated by how my peers, despite being focused on their long term goals, were also aware of their mental and physical capacity, planned time for rest and holidays, and communicated openly with lab members if they needed help or to take time off.

Feng-MIT-007-02.jpg^ Keeping a balance: training with MIT Badminton Club members

Thirdly, I saw that Americans are not just driven by academic knowledge and career growth. Humanity, society and culture are aspects they pay close attention to. They were interested to get to know me, my country and the culture I come from. They would go the extra mile to help me with my research and to build me as a person. They even organised trips to various arts and science museums during my last week in the US. They taught me how to be personable.

Feng-MIT-008.jpg^ Selfie before technical talks is a must

Signalling A New Future
Coming out of the pandemic, we learned the importance of being compassionate and empathetic, working with others, living a life of balance - and how this can make a world of difference to those who are experiencing pressure at work or home. We are scratching the surface of what triggers stress and our response to it, with the hope that the work I’m delving in can unfold many greater discoveries in future. Upon completing my PhD, I aim to work further on the applications of Neurotechnology with AI, that aim to improve human cognition and emotional resilience in the current fast-paced society.

Feng-MIT-009-02.jpg^ Feng with his friends from the graduate student fellowship group

*The Merdeka Award Grant for International Attachment is one of the programmes under the Merdeka Award Trust that supports the development of promising young Malaysians by providing those qualified with the opportunity to engage in short-term internship programmes at globally-renowned host institutions or organisations.


Dr Edison Lee Tian Khoon
Dr Edison headed to Sweden’s Uppsala University, where he joined the Department of Chemistry, Ångström Laboratory, as part of his attachment stint. He is currently carrying out active research in polymer electrolyte and nanomaterials for Lithium-ion batteries. Read more about him here:
Innovating the Energy Ecosystem
Chrishen R. Gomez
Having attended the prestigious Ivy League Brown University as part of his attachment programme, 27-year-old Chrishen is now with the Wildlife Research and Conservation Unit at Oxford University. Chrishen is busy developing a genetic-based research project on the Sunda Clouded Leopard. Read more about him here: Conserving Our Forests & Future
Dr Zetty
Dr Zetty is currently working on anti-cancer compounds found in Malaysian seaweed and has continued to pursue her original project proposal of microalgae vaccine carriers for fish. A working solution has been patented by Dr Zetty and will be deployed within the coming year.
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