The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Self-Experimentation

seth-roberts-large.jpgIt all started when Seth Roberts wondered why his self-experiments were so effective.

Over 12 years, this psychology professor and regular at Quantified Self meetups tested new ideas, observed himself, and learned a number of significant things – new theories about mood, weight loss, sleep-wake cycles, and daily habits necessary for optimal living.

Seth’s exploration of why his self-experiments work so well is now in press for the journal Medical Hypotheses. You can read the full text here, and here’s an abstract:

Over 12 years, my self-experimentation found new and useful ways to improve sleep, mood, health, and weight. Why did it work so well? First, my position was unusual. I had the subject-matter knowledge of an insider, the freedom of an outsider, and the motivation of a person with the problem. I didn’t need to publish regularly. I didn’t want to display status via my research. Second, I used a powerful tool. Self-experimentation about the brain can test ideas much more easily (by a factor of about 500,000) than conventional research about other parts of the body. When you gather data, you sample from a power-law-like distribution of progress. Most data helps a little; a tiny fraction of data helps a lot. My subject-matter knowledge and methodological skills (e.g., in data analysis) improved the distribution from which I sampled (i.e., increased the average amount of progress per sample). Self-experimentation allowed me to sample from it much more often than conventional research. Another reason my self-experimentation was unusually effective is that, unlike professional science, it resembled the exploration of our ancestors, including foragers, hobbyists, and artisans.

Here’s to the power of self-experiments, and self-experimenters!

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One Response to The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Self-Experimentation

  1. msbluebells says:

    This article has awesome implications. It means that certain types of research is with the reach of many of us. We can perform experiments and study without many of external barriers such as cooperation of organizations who have special interests. Technology is providing in many cases simple, low cost tools. Neato!

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