Monday, June 2, 2008

Annals of Self-Experiment - Seth Roberts is His Own Mouse


by Gary Wolf

I'm becoming a devoted fan of Seth Roberts, one of the great champion of self-experimentation. Roberts, an emeritus professor of psychology at UC Berkeley, has spent many year studying himself, and, even better, offering many practical clues about how to construct your own "experiments of one." I first found out about his work in the most obvious way: searching on "self-experimentation" in Google.

mouse.jpgThis lead me to Roberts paper: "Self-experimentation as a source of new ideas: Ten examples about sleep, mood, health, and weight." The problems he describes are so common, and his solutions so counter-intuitive, that you can't help being intrigued. One of the great things about reading Roberts is getting a feeling for how different self-experimentation is from other forms of self-knowledge. While Roberts often begins his experiments with a hypothesis, using his stock of common knowledge, suggestions from friends, and categories of analysis typical of a well-trained college professor, this first idea is usually proven, through experiment, to be wrong. Not superficial, or too narrow, or distorted by delusion or prejudice; simply incorrect, provably irrelevant. So then Roberts has to come up with new ideas. The data, expressed as charts, no longer merely test his hypotheses; the data becomes the source of his theories. And the theories bear the mark have having emerged from data. Often, they seem very, very odd. They seem to have no link to received wisdom, to folk knowledge, to intuitive "rightness." To me, they seem like the kinds of theories a computer might have about a person. (A confession: this biases me in their favor.)

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