Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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  Science Fact-ion by Randall Hayes
January 2017

DO Try This at Home, Kids!

Dr. David Banner—physician, scientist . . .
searching for a way to tap into the hidden strengths
that all humans have.
--Opening credits, The Incredible Hulk TV series

Let's round out our mini-series on taking science into places where it is not normally welcome by stepping into the personal arena, just in time to strengthen your New Year's resolutions. Historically, both mainstream science and SF have considered this a bad idea—Dr. Jekyll being the archetype that launched a thousand tropes.

Our cultural bias against self-experimentation persists despite the fact that at least a dozen such brave souls have won Nobel Prizes (sometimes for other work). The most recent such prize was 2005's award to Barry Marshall, who drank a live culture of Heliobacter to prove that stomach ulcers were not purely stress-related. There are real dangers to this approach, though. In 8 of the 465 cases listed in this comprehensive review paper, the experimenters actually managed to kill themselves, mostly with infectious diseases, and several others gave themselves chronic health problems.

For most of the 20th century, the reputation of self-experimenters as either lone wolf heroes or dangerous crackpots depended on dramatic procedures. Trying new drugs and vaccines, heart catheterization, sitting in a decompression chamber, or going a hundred hours without sleep could all be events at the scientific X-Games. Others were just weird, more like episodes of scientific Jackass with Johnny Knoxville. Isaac Newton deformed his eyeball by sticking a blunt probe into his eye socket to see how it would distort his vision, and in another experiment stared directly at the sun with one eye to see if the image would also appear in his other eye. These stunts are not the kind of ongoing lifestyle tweaks that I encourage my students to try, or that Reed College psychologist Allen Neuringer fantasized about in this 1981 paper:

I can imagine self-experimentation becoming as common and accepted as attending church, going to a ballgame, or seeing a therapist . . . . Perhaps groups would form around subject matter, such as self-experimental health groups, self-experimental child-rearing groups, self-experimental runners, self-experimental artists, and self-experimental citizens for social change.

Poets and novelists could turn to a science of self to at last figure out causes of action, and valid explanations of falling madly in love. Novels and poetry books are filled with well-wrought hypotheses, but very few clearly established functional relationships, relationships that the poet-scientist might finally clarify . . . .

And I can imagine that instead of the often depressing “How are you?” people would greet one another with “What experiments are you doing?”

Thirty-five years later, at least the first of those imagined notions actually exists. The Quantified Self community has websites, and conferences, and a long list of mobile apps that enable people to track at least proxy variables for many important daily behaviors. For instance, the same cell-phone accelerometer that tracks the up-and-down movement of individual walking steps can also rest on your mattress and track your sleep quality, by registering the number of times you toss and turn throughout the night. Once you have data, you can start doing experiments to improve your life. Here are a few suggestions to get you started.

My favorite academic standard bearer for the QS philosphy was Seth Roberts, another psychologist at Berkeley. He proposed long-term self-experimentation as a way to generate hypotheses, to be followed up in more formal studies. His classic Brain & Behavioral Sciences paper covers ten examples from his own life, opening a window into the kind of personality that voluntarily does this level of detailed data collection (i.e., probably a wee bit obsessive). The Open Peer Commentaries, a long-standing BBS tradition for especially controversial articles, are a great example of the public direction that scientific peer review seems to be moving, as well as a miniature course in scientific philosophy and experimental design. Self-experimentation strikes right at the heart of the myth of the scientist as a disinterested observer of passive objects at a distance, and of the idea that averages across people are meaningful (!!!).

While members of the scientific community know about the substance of these serious debates, they are mostly not visible in pop culture. Segments of corporate America have embraced QS as an ongoing process, something akin to Toyota's kaizen philosophy of continuing improvement to manufacturing processes, but for personal productivity. There are also many people advocating data-driven writing practices as well, so I won't spend any words on those, beyond pointing out that Skinner advised his students to “catch birds on the wing,” writing down ideas immediately before they could be forgotten, and Neuringer proposed that daily activity logging served the same purpose, increasing the probability not of generating ideas but of capturing them. More interesting to me personally are comparisons with the Buddhist concept of mindfulness, which Dr. Neuringer approached in that same '81 paper with his staring-at-a-vase experiment, when he tried various techniques to control his own thoughts.

Neuringer spent a big chunk of his career at Reed following up on insights from those early self-studies. His emeritus website lists eight papers on the variability of behavior, what artists would call creativity. SF has consistently championed out-of-the-box thinking as an ideal, but Neuringer and his students put that ideal into experimental practice, working on how to increase the number of different responses an animal makes in a given situation. Like the dolphin experiments from the 60s that you can still see demonstrated in documentaries, they directly rewarded not individual responses, but any response that had not happened before.

This was revolutionary, because many behaviorists thought that the sole purpose of learning was to reduce variability, to increase efficiency. To an evolutionary theorist, that one-sidedness makes no sense—variation is the source material on which selection works. It's valuable, absolutely necessary, and it has to come from somewhere. So Neuringer and a few other researchers trained not dolphins but pigeons and rats and people to be more variable, even to approximate the behavior of random number generators, although that took a lot of practice. They discovered that animals could choose to turn on random behaviors, and that they could behave randomly on one dimension of a task while reducing variability on other dimensions of the same task. They also found that they could reduce some symptoms of depression and ADHD by rewarding increased behavioral variability. Others began to find that more variable environments (the modern buzzword is “enriched”) were protective against depression and even addiction. These are likewise ideas that pop culture has not caught up with, stuck as it is on Walden Two, A Clockwork Orange and Madison Avenue advertising as the only models for behavioral modification. It's always presented as external mind control, never as a form of personal development under your own control, the way meditation usually is.

So how does one go about rewarding creativity? A classic way is to practice by generating lists of options, and the larger the list, the bigger the reward. Further bonus points come from recombining elements on different lists. Paul di Filippo said in the intro to his Nebula-nominated story “Lennon Spex” that it started out as two completely unrelated ideas—John Lennon's glasses as an artifact, and the idea that personal relationships could be viewed as physical connections between people –that one day merged in his head. Making lists may not sound creative in and of itself, but it is the kind of practice that, as a part of a documented program of self-experimentation, could lead to real professional development.

Or it might not. This could also be a prime opportunity to prove me wrong. You'll never know unless you try it.

Randall Hayes, Ph.D., studiously avoids gamma radiation during his daily life and during the performance of his duties at the Greensboro Science Cafe and Agnosia Media, LLC.



Voiced by the great Ted Cassidy, so effectively that it has spawned a whole cottage industry of homages and parodies.


I thought this show was kind of boring when I was eight. I appreciate it much more now.


I have to admit that I've never read the book, only watched movie adaptations—my favorite being Spencer Tracy's, although Kyle MacLachlan also did a fantastic job of humanizing the rip-off character Calvin Zabo in Agents of SHIELD.








Based on a speech, which is why it uses the first-person voice rather than the much clunkier third-person passive voice that so many scientists are addicted to. Also note that the only way to get a free copy of the paper at that time was to write the author and ask for one.

In addition to the wacko historical stuff, this one also contains examples of the super-simple, pragmatic kinds of experiments that I make my students do. Food, hygiene—the kinds of unexamined habits that can have big effects on our quality of life.







We'll come back to that last study of weight control in another column.




He's written a lot more than eight papers; these are just the highlights.


The title of this entry shows how magical the concepts of creativity and synthesis still are.


Ironically, these performances are usually cited as examples of high intelligence in dolphins, not as examples of techniques that work just as well in dumb animals like rats, pigeons, and humans.


These cult favorites from the late 1960s, which I have yet to read, are considered literary, not genre science fiction, but they sound pretty radical.




Most of what people think they know about B.F. Skinner is folklore.


Sniffy, the virtual rat. Just because.

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