Discuss: What Is Your Favorite Self-Experiment?

I thought it might be fun to have some open discussions on the blog, where we all jump in to the comments section and share what we know.
So why wait? Let’s get started with today’s discussion:
What is your favorite self-experiment? It can be something you tried once, or a complex, multi-year effort. It can be crazy or serious, and it doesn’t have to have a result. Just think of the self-experiment that you most remember.

For me, it was my over-eating day when I was 21. I was fed up with frequently eating past the normal signal of satiety, so one day I decided to try to just keep eating – consciously, massively over-feeding myself for a period of 6 hours. From 2-8 pm on a regular Wednesday afternoon, bagels, chocolate milk, porkchops, and all kinds of stomach-stuffing fare were shoveled into my increasingly unwilling mouth. I didn’t bother tracking calories back then, but I ate and ate until my whole midsection was throbbing with pain and I couldn’t move for an entire hour. Rather than praying for it to go away, I dove happily into the pain in an effort to imprint it firmly in my memory. It worked amazingly well – I still remember that feeling quite vividly 12 years later, and I very rarely have the urge to over-eat anymore.

Now it’s your turn. Discuss your favorite self-experiments below!
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14 Responses to Discuss: What Is Your Favorite Self-Experiment?

  1. Kiel says:

    After work I use to play a few rounds of pool at the local pub. I’m usually terrible at pool, but after a few drinks my game would always improve.
    Wanting to understand this effect a little better (i.e. nothing else better to do that evening), I decided to test my hand-to-eye coordination using some software I’d recently developed for work.
    So I drank a pint every 30 minutes after which I would re-test my hand-to-eye coordination. On the first few pints not much happened, but on the third all the computed metrics: thinking time, movement time and accuracy all shot up above the zero pint score. Subsquently three pints ended up being the sweet-spot for playing pool as on the forth pint hand-to-eye coordination dropped below the zero pint score and continued dropping.
    It was a fun self-experiment, but the hang overs kinda made repeat testing somewhat difficult.

  2. ben lipkowitz says:

    alexandra, your “experiment” sounds more like a behavioral modification technique than purely seeking insight.
    as for me, when I was a teenager I was into witchcraft, so I made a bet with my brother that I could make a coin come up heads “at will” – well, it did didn’t work because I flipped tails 86 times in a row before giving up…
    remember kids, document your experiments! and use a digital notary. your grandchildren will thank you.

  3. Alexandra Carmichael says:

    Good point Ben! OK, here’s another one that is more experiment-like:
    Recently I found myself saying to my kids, “Why do you ALWAYS whine while I’m eating?” As soon as these words came out of my mouth, I wondered if it was true that they whine more when I sit down to eat or if I just noticed the whining more at those times.
    So I tracked it for 4 days – whining inside and outside of mealtimes. To my surprise, I found that they actually whined more during non-eating times!! It was my perception that was skewed.
    But this experiment did help me to realize that eating time is sort of a quiet meditation time for me – and communicating that need to my kids is a more helpful, positive strategy than getting flustered and blurting out inaccurate accusations. :)

  4. stefan says:

    I have one: Have you realized that you have a dominant or primary eye? Or know how to tell which one it is?
    After spending some time playing around with the idea of what it meant to have a ‘primary’ eye, I did the following experiment: I covered it with an eye patch for a day, to see if the ‘secondary’ eye would get stronger. Here’s what happened: I temporarily went blind!
    To determine your primary eye, do this: identify some small object or point on a far wall or landscape that you can locate quickly. Then (both eyes open), very quickly, look at it while you bring up your hand and make a circle around the point with your thumb and forefinger (like the ‘A-OK!’ sign). *Without moving your fingers* close one eye at a time and see which eye still locates the object inside your circle. That’s your primary eye.
    When we look with binocular vision, the eyes aren’t equal. One of them sort of anchors the image, and the other acts like a backup.
    One day, shortly after discovering this concept, I took a long drive down the California coast. So I bought a cheap eye patch and wore it for most of the trip. After about three or four hours, a funny thing started to happen: my field of vision would disappear! By moving around some (i.e., creating motion in my field of view) I could bring my vision back, but the longer I went the harder I had to concentrate to see anything at all. I finally had to take the eye patch off to avoid having an accident.
    My theory is that our brains depend mostly on the primary eye for vision; it’s the ‘authority’ on what we see. If that eye is covered up the brain will use the info from the other eye, but this requires work. But if the primary eye is covered for an extended time then after a while the brain gets tired of the effort, and defaults to the primary eye for vision. Even when the primary eye is just seeing ‘nothing’, the brain goes “ok, guess that’s what’s in front of me” – and will do this even if there’s a large truck heading straight for you (maybe – I haven’t tested this one yet…)
    It’s likely that eyes are like handedness – some people are more or less extreme in whether they are right or left handed, and some are even ambidextrous. It’d be interesting to know if the dominant eye is correlated to the dominant hand to some degree; in my case I’m ‘very’ right-handed, and my primary eye is the left one.
    Finally, obviously some people lose an eye, and sometimes it must be the primary eye. So likely the secondary eye will become primary over time, as it gets both ‘stronger’ and when the brain is finally convinced.

  5. Kiel says:

    Hi Stefan,
    From my perspective it be interesting to know how many people can actually perceive their primary eye without experimentation. As I’ve an alternating squint I’m always acutely aware of which eye I’m using, and can shift perspective if I wish (though not much use in that).
    Regarding your theory on eye exhaustion, I’m not sure if the brain would decide to cut you off from your vision, but I can tell you that my ability to shift perspective to my secondary eye is extremely difficult when I’m tired.

  6. John Amschler says:

    Just the other day I went through this with my brother as we were discussing archery and what hand we shot with, why, and why sometimes as a child he just couldn’t shoot well.
    We did a similar test to retest our eyes and it shocked me to realize that I’m now left eye dominant (when I was younger I was right eye dominant).
    Anyone have any insight into the reasons that a person may switch dominant eyes?
    I had Lasik back in 1998 & still don’t need glasses – could lasik have changed something?
    I forget which eye was stronger before the surgery and which was stronger after – but maybe the dominant is the one with better vision?

  7. stefan says:

    Kiel, I did find that friends had different results with my technique for identifying the dominant eye. Some, I could actually see them slightly move their head or arm as they used each eye (probably so each eye could ‘look’ through the circle of fingers) but they themselves weren’t aware of this motion – to them it seemed each eye could see the same image through the circle (this is physically impossible). Others just never ‘got’ the instructions.
    Re being ‘cut off from my vision’ (that’s a nice description), it sounds unlikely but that’s *exactly* what happened. On the freeway. Now, it’d be another interesting experiment to see if I could ‘really’ anyway, like some people with brain-caused blindness can’t ‘see’ but can still avoid a ball tossed at them. But I was indeed ‘cut off from my vision’. Once this effect kicked in I stopped the experiment (still on the road).
    The ‘brain exhaustion’ idea is just a wild-hair guess, but seems consistent with other explanations for brain behavior I’ve read about.
    John, interesting about switching. I have NO idea but the Lasik thing does seem like a good candidate. Re the one with better vision, in my case my right (secondary) eye has slightly better vision now, though I had pretty equal/good vision up until around 50.

  8. Traci says:

    Very interesting post and responses.
    I conducted a self-experiment on memory earlier this year. I chose a handful of movies that I saw when I was a child or teen, saw only once, and had not seen in at least 20 years. For the test, I attempted to describe the plot, characters, and key scenes of the movies from memory. Then I re-watched each movie and compared my remembrances to the actual films.
    I was curious if I would find patterns in the results. Was the age that I saw the movie the deciding factor in the accuracy of my memory? Would I remember plot, characters, the soundtrack or images better? Did the genre of movie (comedy, horror, etc) matter?
    I selected 8 movies to test:
    “Coming Home”
    “The Shining”
    “Blood Simple”
    “Romancing the Stone”
    “Blue Velvet”
    The results surprised me. The age I saw the movies wasn’t a factor, but the genre was.
    I didn’t remember the comedies at all (“Caddyshack” seen at age 10, “Romancing the Stone” seen at age 14). Dramas fared better: I couldn’t accurately describe the plot or characters of “Coming Home” (seen at age 7) or “Blood Simple” (seen at age 14), but I storyboarded the last 5 minutes of both films accurately.
    I remembered “The Shining” (seen at age 10) and “Blue Velvet” (seen at age 16) the most vividly. Remembering these movies was like remembering dreams – I forgot plot details but the images and colors were startlingly clear. Most surprising was how accurately I remembered the interiors (the ballroom in “The Shining”, Isabella Rossellini’s apartment in “Blue Velvet”). It was if these were rooms I visited. I could even remember the wallpaper.
    What to make of this experiment? It may be that the “The Shining” and “Blue Velvet” inspired my strongest emotional reactions and this is why I remembered them the best.
    No matter what, I learned that a movie’s art direction affects me more than I originally thought.

  9. Alexandra Carmichael says:

    Wow, great experiments, everyone, thanks so much for sharing!! Any requests for what question to discuss next? Favorite tracking tool? Most embarrassing self-tracking moment? Most surprising discovery?

  10. Kiel says:

    Hi Alexandra,
    I think Stefan raised an interesting point concerning the potential of self-tracking/experimentation to harm the subject (e.g. if the brain did shut off secondary vision while the user was suppressing primary vision you could be in for a world of hurt if experimenting in the wrong situation such as driving).
    It might be interesting to discuss what negative experiences self-tracking has personally wrought and what we would recommend to make the experience less negative.
    For example, I track my heartbeat 24 x 7 and one day when in the process of sitting down at my desk I became aware of the blood pumping through my system (i.e. heard it). Given I had real time access to my heart data I looked at the current trace and saw my heart undergoing unusual decceleration (i.e. unusual for my current experience of my tracking data). It decreased below my rest state, then my sleep state and kept falling. By the time it reached several beats or so under my sleep state I was starting to panic as I’d never seen this before and while my heart eventually returned to normal if I hadn’t had access to this data I would of never had this negative experience.
    While I’m not a hypercondriac, and have some knowledge on the heart, this event was an unknown quantify for me and as the implied meaning of a very slow heart with the knowledge I did have didn’t seem to bode well for myself the real time nature of the system probably compounded my worry with the change my body was currently undergoing.
    In terms of advice for anyone else tracking their physiology, from this I would recommend not to draw meaning from unusual activity while your currently experiencing it. However this is problematic in itself, as said unsual activity could be something you should be concerned with at that present in time :(

  11. stefan says:

    Kiel brings up an intriguing twist: in self-experimentation there is the likelihood of a feedback loop impacting the self and thus the experiment, which might be a bad thing. Perhaps one could avoid this by not tracking the data in real time if possible, and instead review it afterward. OR, the feedback itself could BE an experiment. Extending his experiment of tracking the pulse, what if one listened (electronic stethoscope?) to the heart beat all day? What was the impact of the feedback? Perhaps compare a ‘typical’ (not listened-to) day’s pulse. It’d be kind of interesting! I’d hypothesize that one might gain more precise conscious control over one’s own pulse…
    As an aside, in my experiment the blindness wasn’t immediately dangerous; it felt more like staring at a fixed point until the image disappears. In my case it gradually got harder and harder to stop that “disappearance” from happening. If I made a greater effort to concentrate then my open-eye vision would return for a while, then fade again. It was manageable until I got into more challenging traffic, and that’s when I stopped the experiment.

  12. stefan says:

    Alexandra: one of my favorite entertainments is “stupid human tricks” – weird, surprising, awesome, silly, quirky things that one can do with one’s body. Here are a some examples (one long – I couldn’t resist), and perhaps one can come up with a reasonable topic:
    I have always been able to curl my tongue, and when I had our baby, I saw that she could curl her tongue too. This wasn’t surprising since I knew that tongue-curling is a specific trait; you either had the gene or you didn’t. But then I saw her twist her tongue *sideways* and I thought “mmm – I can’t do THAT. But my wife can’t curl her tongue, so my daughter must have MY gene for it, and I *should* be able to do it…” So I practiced for a while, making very weird faces, and lo and behold, I found I could indeed twist my tongue sideways too.
    What’s kinda interesting is that my daughter, now a ‘tween’, has forgotten how to twist her tongue sideways, and thinks she can’t do it anymore – but I know she’s wrong :-)
    I taught myself to wiggle my ears when I was 30 or so. This was a side-effect of learning to meditate. The style I used then involved experiencing “the middle of my head” and to do so required that I repeatedly relax the muscles around my head. After a year or so of this I had acquired control over them, and the result was that I could wiggle my ears.
    Here’s one I wish someone would explain to me. This one got long – sorry.
    I have an odd ability to consciously turn on or increase the flow of some hormone (epinephrine? adrenaline?) in my body for a little while. I do a certain hard-to-explain ‘reaching inside’ somewhere with a kind of no-muscle ‘squeeze’ (but not actually squeezing anything), and for a short while 1) my heart rate increases and gets erratic, 2) my blood pressure goes way up, and 3) my pupils dilate.
    I sometimes use this to freak people out: “watch my eyes…” – nice for parties. But I don’t really need higher blood pressure so I don’t do it often. It’s also handy for sobering up quickly I think, but I don’t get drunk often enough or think about it at the time so have no metrics for this…
    Accessing this ability is trivially easy, but it gets difficult to maintain over time, and I have to ‘squeeze’ harder to keep it going. I feel slightly exhausted if I do it for a while.
    The physical feeling is sort of like fear – like when someone jumps out at you and yells “boo!”, or that horrible sinking feeling you suddenly think you left your baby at the bus stop (for the record, this never happened). But there is NO emotional component at all. That’s why I think some flight-or-fight hormone but I have zero expertise around that so it’s a wild guess.
    I’ve never found a source or a person with any kind of explanation or interest about this. It seems like it might be a useful skill to study, for someone interested in what triggers certain internal responses (i.e., nobody has to show me photos of burning buildings or war, they just say “now”).

    • Vivifizgig says:

      Your description of your favorite self-experiment was good enough that I could tell that it’s what I do as well, although I don’t really notice changes to my blood pressure/rate/etc or pupils dilating. If you ever find out any scientific perspective or terms, I’d be interested and may one day re-check this blog for an answer. And of course am fairly likely to do the same for you.

      There don’t seem to be any particular keywords that I could think of to google it with.

      And do you feel something in your legs as well? Localized to some specific areas, like the front middle of the top half of the legs?

  13. Matthew Cornell says:

    Fun topic, Alex. Not too long ago I tried dressing up more in public (I’m usually veeeeeery casual). Things I enjoyed were hat shopping and wearing (felt weird, got compliments) and getting priority service at the bank :-)
    (On Edison: http://edison.thinktrylearn.com/experiments/show/102)

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