Self-Portrait as Allegory of

Jenna Xu

To this day, “learned helplessness” is still the most insidious vestige of my history with depression, quietly limiting my sense of self, capability, and possibility. “Self-Portrait as Allegory of” is my act of resistance: a data-driven, machine-managed, mental health maintenance system that aims not only to mitigate the pain points of recovery, but restore my sense of agency.


Adapting the conceptual format and title of an Artemisia Gentileschi painting from 1638—39, my thesis is at once a self-portrait as depicted by personal data and predictive models, as well as an allegory to an amalgamation of scientific, cultural, and personal ideals of mental health.

In construction, “Self-Portrait as Allegory of” comprises three systems: data collection by a body of trackers I built to collect behavioral metrics; mood prediction by a suite of neural networks that use this data to predict my mood, morale, stress, and fatigue levels; and intervention by a noninteractive voice assistant that responds to these predictions by directing me to perform mood-improving interventions and rituals that, taken together, form a lifestyle shift that optimizes for mental health.

In manifestation, the project stems from the last system as an n-of-one experiment: a data-driven, tech-directed performance of a composite aspiration comprising optimizations from positive psychology, the wellness industry, self-care culture, the female-empowerment zeitgeist, and my own romanticism of past, present, and future lives forever shaped, stagnated, and propelled by my history with depression. Synthesized into actionable interventions and rituals, these frameworks form the body of allegorical symbolism for idealized mental health, which I perform throughout the day as the system sees fit. The mere act of embodying these ideals allows me to not only live them in the present but also write them into my narrative of the future.

By transforming mental health maintenance, normally a consciously effortful, continuous act of self-discipline, into a simple performance of externally mandated instruction, my thesis aims to render irrelevant some of the most insidious and persistent depressive symptoms – learned helplessness and fixed mindset – by removing willpower, decision-making, and constant emotional monitoring out of the daily work of self-care and recovery.



Thesis Presentation Video