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.”
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,
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
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.
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 . . . .
I can imagine that instead of the often depressing “How are
you?” people would greet one another with “What
experiments are you doing?”
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
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
of behavior, what artists would call creativity. SF has consistently
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
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
development under your own control, the way meditation
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.
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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