Cuddling a Mechanical 'Breathing Cushion' Could Help Ease Anxiety

The gentle rise and fall of the machines.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
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These images show the innards of the breathing cushion and what it looks like when someone is hugging it.

Haynes et al., 2022, PLOS ONE

In times of stress, I often reach for my big old cat, cuddle him in my arms and bury my face in his fur, feeling his chest rise and fall against the side of my face. He's kind enough to tolerate me, but he might get a reprieve from hug duty if I were to get a "breathing cushion."

A team led by researchers at the University of Bristol in the UK has developed a soft pillow that feels like it's breathing. The idea is that a person could wrap their arms around it and hug it to help relieve anxiety. 

The team built several prototype devices to mimic breathing, purring and heartbeats, but focus groups picked out the breathing version as the most calming. The cushion is the focus of a study published this week in the journal PLOS One.

A group of 129 volunteers participated in an experiment involving a math test. "Using pre- and post-test questionnaires, the researchers found that students who used the device were less anxious pre-test than those who did not," PLOS said in a statement on Wednesday. 

Robots and machines haven't typically been regarded as cuddly, friendly objects, but designers have been developing softer and more approachable devices in recent years, including robots shaped like seals and ducks

The researchers intend to refine the mechanical pillow, expand testing and gather more detailed data on users' responses to it. 

"We were excited to find that holding the breathing cushion, without any guidance, produced a similar effect on anxiety in students as a meditation practice," the study's authors said. "This ability of the device to be used intuitively opens it up to providing wider audiences with accessible anxiety relief."