Measuring Yourself to Improve Your Health? Want to Guest-Blog?

What surprised me most about my self-experimental discoveries was that they were outside my area of expertise (animal learning). I discovered how to sleep better but I’m not a sleep researcher. I discovered how to improve my mood but I’m not a mood researcher. I discovered that flaxseed oil improved brain function but I’m not a nutrition researcher. And so on. This is not supposed to happen. Chemistry professors are not supposed to advance physics.  Long ago, this rule was broken. Mendel was not a biologist, Wegener (continental drift) was not a geologist. It hasn’t been broken in the last 100 years. As knowledge increases, the “gains due to specialization” — the advantage of specialists over everyone else within their area of expertise — is supposed to increase. The advantage, and its growth, seem inevitable. It occurs, say economists, because specialized knowledge (e.g., what physicists know that the rest of us, including chemists, don’t know) increases. My theory of human evolution centers on the idea that humans have evolved to specialize and trade. In my life I use thousands of things made by specialists that I couldn’t begin to make myself.

Here we have two things. 1. A general rule (specialists have a big advantage, within their specialty, over the rest of us) that is overwhelmingly true. 2. An exception (my work). How can this be explained? What can we learn from it? I’ve tried to answer these questions but I can add to what I said in that paper. The power of specialization is clearly enormous. Adam Smith, who called specialization “division of labor”, was right. The existence of an exception to the general rule suggests  there are forces pushing in the opposite direction (toward specialists being worse than the rest of us in their area of expertise) that can be more powerful than the power of specialization. Given the power of specialization, the countervailing forces must be remarkably strong. Can we learn more about them? Can we harness them? Can we increase them? The power of specialization has been increasing for thousands of years. How strong the countervailing forces may become is unclear.

The more you’ve read this blog, the more you know what I think the countervailing forces are. Some of them weaken specialists: 1. Professors prefer to be useless rather than useful (Veblen).  2. A large fraction (99%?) of health care workers have no interest in remedies that do not allow them to make money. 3. Medical school professors are terrible scientists. 4. Restrictions on research. Some of them strengthen the rest of us: 1. Data storage and analysis have become very cheap. 2. It is easier for non-scientists to read the scientific literature. 3. No one cares more about your health than you. These are examples. The list could be much longer. What’s interesting is not the critique of health care, which is pretty obvious, but the apparent power of these forces, which isn’t obvious at all.

I want to learn more about this. I want learn how to use these opposing forces and, if possible, increase them. One way to do this is find more exceptions to the general rule, that is, find more people who have improved their health beyond expert advice. I have found some examples. To find more, to learn more about them, and to encourage this sort of thing (DIY Health), I offer the opportunity to guest-blog here.

I think the fundamental reason you can improve on what health experts tell you is that you can gather data. Health experts have weakened their position by ignoring vast amounts of data. Three kinds of data are helpful:  (a) other people’s experiences, (b) scientific papers and (c) self-measurement (combined with self-experimentation). No doubt (c) is the hardest to collect and the most powerful. I would like to offer one or more people the opportunity to guest-blog here about what happens when they try to do (c). In plain English, I am looking for people who are measuring a health problem  and trying to improve on expert advice. For example, trying to lower blood pressure without taking blood pressure medicine. Or counting pimples to figure out what’s causing your acne. Or measuring your mood to test alternatives to anti-depressants. I don’t care what’s measured, so long as it is health-related. (Exception: no weight-loss stories) and you approach these measurements with an open mind (e.g., not trying to promote some product or theory). I am not trying to collect success stories. I am trying to find out what happens when people take this approach.

Guest-blogging may increase your motivation, push you to think more (“I blog, therefore I think“) and give you access to the collective wisdom of readers of this blog (in the comments). If guest-blogging about your experiences and progress (or lack of it) might interest you, contact me with details of what you are doing or plan to do.

6 Responses to “Measuring Yourself to Improve Your Health? Want to Guest-Blog?”

  1. John Lawrence Aspden Says:

    Hi Seth, after four months I’m convinced your diet works:

    http://johnlawrenceaspden.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/shangri-la-diet-month-four-success-im.html

    I’m still not convinced about the scarcity of food -> loss of appetite theory. It looks like a just so story, and it could equally well go scarcity of food -> eat everything you can get your hands on.

    But I think your diet works for me. Is anyone showing any interest in doing a large scale randomized trial?

    Seth: Thanks for your excellent blog post. No one has contacted me about doing a randomized trial, I’m afraid. About the theory behind the diet. The theory came before the diet and led me to it. That a theory produces a diet that (a) works and (b) is very counter-intuitive seems to me to be excellent evidence for the theory. I too was/am skeptical of evolutionary explanations but they have helped me find surprising cause-effect relationships several times.

  2. Koanic Says:

    I find that Filemaker is a useful program for collecting data, for those of us unfamiliar with and intimidated by R. It is a database program that allows one to design one’s tables, fields and forms. This is really what you need to collect personal data.

    For example, right now I’m measuring sleep onsets and durations, and psychomotor test scores with subjective notes. Both have autogenerated timestamp fields. This is to provide feedback on a polyphasic sleep experiment.

    In a single database, I can store pretty much every type of self tracking data I collect over my lifetime. Handy.

    At a more zoomed out level, I track every day that I get to my journaling habit, which serves as a good proxy for conscientiousness and overall health. I use the website “don’t break the chain” for this.

    I believe that the act of tracking should be designed so that in itself it increases your discipline without adding onerous load to your day.

  3. Jim Purdy Says:

    Seth, in any discussion of specialist and non-specialist behaviors, I think we should consider the natural herding behavior of most people, both specialists and non-specialists.

    Many animals, including people, feel a instinctive sense of security in numbers. In the wild, the animal that strays from the pack is the most likely to be targeted by predators. That herding or pack instinct is very powerful, because it has been selected for over many millions of years of Darwinian evolution.

    In many professions, it can be career-damaging to resist the pressure to conform. In my own long-ago profession as a news reporter, pack journalism was and is the expected behavior. When I was with UPI in the 1960s and 1970s, the competition between AP and UPI was so intense that being first with a story, by 4 or 5 seconds, was all-important. The result was very sloppy journalism, and the dumbing down of news consumers.

    And that trend of 40 years ago has only gotten worse, especially with the relentless pressure from the fake journalists at Fox News. When Fox makes up a story, even a typically bogus story, pack journalism kicks in and soon all the media, even the once-esteemed New York Times, are soon imitating Fox.

    That herding tendency is true not just in journalism, but in other fields, especially medicine. When I once complained to a doctor that he wasn’t paying attention to me, he adamantly insisted that it “would be malpractice” for him to listen to his patients instead of following national guidelines.

    Self-experimentation may be the only way for most health consumers to find out what works for them. BigPharma certainly is not the solution.

    jimpurdy1943@yahoo.com

    Seth: I agree. This is one aspect of what I mean when I say non-professionals have more freedom than professionals. Non-professionals can test “crazy” ideas (e.g., “crazy” ideas about how to lose weight or sleep better), professionals cannot.

  4. Joe Says:

    “especially with the relentless pressure from the fake journalists at Fox News”

    Why pick on Fox News? They’re all the same. “Fake journalists” everywhere you look. NBC, MSNBC, CBS, ABC, BBC, etc. Ditto for newspapers.

  5. Greg Says:

    I can think of a few important cross-disciplinary contributions to biology in the 20th century –

    Linus Pauling: physicist, and a founding father of molecular biology (also a health self-experimenter).

    Max Delbruck: astrophysicist who made significant discoveries in microbiology.

    Alan Turing: founding father of computer science, founding father of computational biology.

    Carl Woese: molecular biologist, revolutionized the science of evolution.

    Seth: Delbruck changed fields. He was a professional biologist. Woese is a professor of microbiology, which is where his contributions are. If he were a professor of physics, I’d agree with you. Sure, the people who start a field are going to by definition come from outside that field. E.g., Ebbinghaus (one of the originators of experimental psychology) was a philosopher.

  6. Alexander Boland Says:

    My two main areas of interest are (1) mitigating my ADHD (I’ve been taking medications on and off since I was a teenager and don’t like that) and (2) more recently, dealing with energy levels.

    Recently I was feeling very sluggish on a daily basis at work and easily getting energy crashes right before and right after lunch. The main culprit here was probably the medications I take; during a period of time where I was off of them but on a low-carb diet, my energy levels were very stable.

    That aside, I started engaging in a relatively simple self-experiment but it’s not very formal and doesn’t have much in the way of data. I got a hunch, from a Leangains.com post on cortisol and breakfast, that having coffee with my breakfast was causing seriosu insulin spikes and leaving my energy in an extremely volatile state. Lately, I’ve started waiting around an hour after a meal before having anything caffienated. The results are mixed, but generally good.

    That said, this week I have a lot of energy despite the tactic failing me last Thursday and Friday. Odd too because this weekend I was feeling a bit “blah” and was out late drinking a lot. I’m wondering if it was just much needed rest (I don’t take medications on weekends), or if it had something to do with consuming carbohydrates (I was eating more carbs than usual, partially to nurse hangovers.) I sometimes find that strategically placed carbohydrates have a positive effect on me.

    This all feels a bit too vague and simple to talk about on your blog but I thought it wouldn’t hurt to talk about my most recent adventure in self-monitoring.