Self-Experimentation: For More Than Just Diets

Seth Roberts, the Shangri-La Diet guy, originally discovered his diet idea through scientifically rigorous self-experimentation*. Over years, he tried many different methods to lose weight and to cure his acne and insomnia, changing one variable at a time and measuring the results carefully. The results in all three areas were remarkable and novel: his now-famous weight reduction program, a cure for his acne, and an unusual insomnia prevention program (watching talking heads on TV shortly after awakening each day, or standing erect at least nine hours per day, or exposure to fluorescent light early in the morning). His paper notes that self-experimentation might be very effective at coming up with out-of-the-box thinking on ways to address just about any illness or unwanted mood or behaviour.

While self-experimentation may lack objectivity, and certainly lacks the volume of test subjects and presence of a ‘control group’ that medical research generally considers essential for scientific validity, it has the unarguable advantage of taking into account individual variability (our bodies and minds are all different), and the personal engagement of the ‘patient’ must inevitably improve its efficacy. In the long run, if the ‘customer’ believes it works, that’s all that matters. It is only learned helplessness, and the outrageous prohibition of self-experimentation in the early days of the 20th century (until then you were allowed to self-prescribe any drug or treatment you could buy or concoct, caveat emptor) that diminished self-experimentation from the principal means by which we accepted responsibility for our own health, to “inadvisable”, “rash”, and “irresponsible” behaviour. We now defer to ‘professionals’ to tell us what’s good for us, at huge and arguably unnecessary cost to the ‘health care system’, our self-reliance, our independence, and our sense of personal responsibility.

When I was in the hospital for my kidney stones, I leapfrogged others in the waiting room because I had carefully monitored exactly what I had eaten, which exact drugs I had taken, and what symptoms had occurred precisely where in my body, and when, down to the minute, so that I had self-diagnosed (based on two previous bouts with stones) my problem and even self-prescribed the treatment (unfortunately the narcotics I had kept, against pharmaceutical advice, from my last bout were stale and no longer effective). I did my research on the Internet, and asked intelligent questions about preventing future occurrences. The doctors in the emergency ward said I was “a breath of fresh air” — able to answer all their questions with a high degree of self-awareness and knowledge of my illness, and lamented the fact that much of the time required to diagnose patients was due to their helpless inability to even describe what was wrong with them.

Damn the medical ‘profession’ (which must have seen new laws prohibiting self-treatment as a great make-work project, back when they weren’t too busy or too knowledgeable) and damn the legal ‘profession’ (which was almost assuredly behind these new laws as a means of creating new liability for doctors and hence a new revenue stream for them). The whole ‘alternative medicine’ industry, which runs the gamut from brilliant natural treatments selfishly opposed by Big Pharma (e.g. Monsanto’s continued lobbying against stevia, to protect its toxic chemical artificial sweetener monopoly) to outright criminal quackery (e.g. most of the self-treatments on late-night infomercials), is a direct result of citizen dissatisfaction with the monopolization of treatment of our own bodies by self-anointed ‘professionals’. And it has led to the medical profession, in defence of that monopoly, pretending to know much more about health and disease than they really do, creating false and unreasonable expectations, worsening our learned helplessness, and making the whole ‘industry’ absurdly and unnecessarily expensive, and grossly inefficient. One doctor I know says 90% of what he does could be done just as well by nurses, para-professionals and/or patients themselves, but he is prohibited from allowing them to do so by the lawyers and insurance companies.

What’s more, with ‘professional supervision’, those suffering with serious allergies, diabetes and other volatile conditions already do and must self-experiment, both to define the extent of their condition as precisely as possible and to self-treat when ‘professional’ treatment could be too late.

Fortunately, the Internet is on our side, allowing us to share information with others, and to take back some control and responsibility over our own bodies from ‘professionals’, and not rely on shady hucksters of alternative, often-dubious under-the-counter substances. I have suggested before that ‘all of us know more than any of us’ (including the professionals) and that self-experimentation combined with information-sharing with millions of other self-experimenters could lead to a much healthier population at much lower cost than the dysfunctional system we have now. This is another example of the Wisdom of Crowds.

What Seth did was learn about the medical research process by self-experimenting. What he offers us now (<– note: this is a long but absolutely fascinating paper) is his knowledge of the research process, so that we can apply it to our own self-experimentation. This process is not rocket science, and should be obvious to anyone familiar with the ‘scientific method’ we all learned in high school: Conduct a series of experiments, holding most of the variables constant and varying just one at a time, Observe the results, Formulate a hypothesis to explain the results, Use the hypothesis to predict other results, Conduct tests to verify the predictions and hence confirm or refute the hypothesis. Rinse and repeat.

What is interesting about self-experimentation is that it allows you to abandon and modify hypotheses much more quickly than formal testing, drawing on your instincts, and to hone in on better hypothesis candidates more quickly, by successive approximation, trial and error. In effect, this is a more natural way of learning, drawing on both subjective and objective assessments instead of just the latter. It is improvisational rather than advanced-planned. Although it is less disciplined than formal scientific testing (and hence would not stand up as well in court, or in fusty peer review) I would argue that it is more effective. If you’re talking about improving your own health, which is more important to you?

So while Seth’s test allowed him to find a cure for insomnia (looking at large talking heads on TV each morning, a simulation of social contact with others at that hour), the extent and personal context of the data he collected surfaced hypotheses in entirely different areas that would be unlikely to have come to light from normal, objective scientific work. For example, he has hypothesized (compellingly) that looking at those large talking heads at that time might also be an effective treatment for depression. He has hypothesized that changes in natural light patterns (due to the seasons, and to East-West travel) may have a much more pronounced (and once understood, perhaps controllable) effect on our circadian rhythms and hence on our psychology, physiology and metabolism than we would expect.

What informed his hypotheses-creation is precisely what has informed much of my thinking in recent years: How does nature deal with this? In my case I draw on my amateur study of birds and animals in the ‘wild’ near our house and in the forest nearby, and on my extensive reading about animal behaviour. In Seth’s case he draws on his understanding of how pre-civilization humans lived. That led him to appreciate that social conversation in the morning was useful in tribal cultures, and detrimental at night when others were trying to sleep, and that hence watching talking heads in the morning would improve natural rhythms and mood, while watching them after midnight would have the opposite effect, hypotheses he verified by self-experimentation. Likewise his assessment that in tribal cultures standing or walking nine hours a day would have been normal, led him to hypothesize that standing or (less practical in the modern world) walking nine hours a day would improve natural rhythms and mood, and alleviate insomnia, which he also verified by self-experimentation. And from there, the corollary hypotheses are immediate and exciting: Could standing nine hours a day also alleviate osteoporosis and back problems? And what would be the effect of replacing all our desks with standing-height tables and orthomats (to relieve the stress of standing in one place for extended periods)? A key step in determining what to try, and what hypotheses to test, in self-experimentation to improve your (physical or mental) health is acknowledging that we are physiologically largely unchanged since pre-history, and hence asking What about my current way of life is unnatural?

So Seth’s message for self-experimentation to improve your health is tripartite:

  1. Use the scientific method, and be imaginative in formulating hypotheses to test by self-experimentation and disciplined in testing them, but also take advantage of the opportunity to be very improvisational in abandoning and modifying your hypotheses; 
  2. In imagining possible hypotheses to test through self-experimentation, don’t be limited by conventional wisdom, and above all ask What about my current way of life is unnatural?; and
  3. Share the results of your self-experiments with others doing the same thing, so you learn from them and vice versa.

This, far more than the concept of the Shangri-La diet, is what really excites me about Seth’s work. Giving yourself permission to take responsibility for your own health, learning a simple process for doing so, and hence liberating yourself from our society’s learned helplessness, is an extraordinarily exhilarating prospect. As I am prone to morning moodiness, insomnia, and chronic back problems, I’m planning on stealing Seth’s idea of using a standing-height table and anti-fatigue mat to replace my desk and easy chair (I did this briefly after my last back injury, when I couldn’t sit down, and I really liked it). I also plan on having more breakfast meetings with people in my neighbourhood, and taping and watching the talk shows I now watch at night (Daily Show, Bill Maher and occasionally Charlie Rose) in the morning instead.

And then I will apply my imagination to create and test other hypotheses. I’ve had a seasonal severe skin itchiness for thirty years that doctors have never been able to diagnose, that I now treat effectively with short immersion in a (very hot) hot tub, but I’m going to start self-experimenting for a preventative cure instead of a treatment. And since there is absolutely no medical consensus on how to prevent kidney stones (as I’ve reported, much of the medical advice is self-contradictory) I’m going to try self-experimentation for that as well. I will, of course, keep you all informed of my progress, of what apparently (at least for me) works and what doesn’t, and would ask you to do the same. Let’s see if we can put the medical ‘profession’ and Big Pharma, and the lawyers and insurance companies that leach off them, out of business.

* It would be more accurate (but more verbose) to refer to the process as ‘self-experimentation plus self-observation’. In this article I use the term self-experimentation to include the accompanying self-observation.

Images above: Saddle-chair to relieve pressure from prolonged standing, from Canadian government occupational health site; Sit-stand desk from Neilsen Associates, a UK furniture company. I’m not happy with any of the commercial standing-height furniture (it needs to be able to tilt, for a start, it should not be that expensive, and it should ideally be portable). So to further demonstrate my victory over learned helplessness, I’m going to design and build my own.

Final note: I’m still on the diet, in the hope that it will reduce my evening cravings for sugar, oil and salt. My status report will follow nextweek.

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9 Responses to Self-Experimentation: For More Than Just Diets

  1. Raging Bee says:

    What is interesting about self-experimentation is that it allows you to abandon and modify hypotheses much more quickly than formal testing, drawing on your instincts, and to hone in on better hypothesis candidates more quickly, by successive approximation, trial and error.That’s only true if your “instincts” (a.k.a. biases, prejudices, gut feelings, received “wisdom,” etc.) are both reliable and flexible. And if you’re lucky enough not to blunder into a “remedy” that endangers your life.In effect, this is a more natural way of learning, drawing on both subjective and objective assessments instead of just the latter.There’s nothing “objective” in self-testing; it’s ALL subjective, and makes NO allowance for different physiologies or environments.It is improvisational rather than advanced-planned.And thus it is less likely to account for all possible outcomes or circumstances, both expected and unexpected.Although it is less disciplined than formal scientific testing (and hence would not stand up as well in court, or in fusty peer review) I would argue that it is more effective. If you’re talking about improving your own health, which is more important to you?What’s more important to me? Getting the best expertise available to solve problems — and that does NOT mean trusting the uncorroborated word of another non-expert; nor does it mean wasting my time (and possibly endangering my life) experimenting with remedies that someone else may already have ruled out as ineffective.Congratulations — you’ve just taken the basic spiel of the medical charlatan or con-artist, and dressed it up as a post-modern “rediscovery” of “ancient wisdom.” And, to top it all off, you’ve blindly discounted the two most effective means — courts and peer-review — of separating what works from what doesn’t.

  2. Gary says:

    Sorry if this is deamed off topic – but it IS on the topic of save the world!Check this out! Read clear to the bottm, and pass it on. (not to be bossy – I just think this is potentially a great answer to fuel);

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Spoken like a true conservative, RB.Some more thoughts on finishing reading Roberts’ long paper in the scientific journal cited in my article:– Roberts found that better sleep, better morning light and walking/standing a lot eliminated his colds, he assumes because these things strengthened his immune system. He suggests perhaps incorporating this into workplace design. Why not home, school, and even medical facility design as well?– Roberts refers to a study in rural India where a high correlation was found between softness of diet and dental malocclusion. He presents this as another example of developing non-obvious, imaginative health hypotheses by asking “what is it about our life that is unnatural?” (in this case a preponderance of unnaturally soft foods). This reminds me of the anthropological discovery that skeletons of prehistoric people were free from tooth decay, suggesting that the massive amount of sugar in our diet, and not bad dental hygiene, is to blame for poor dental health. If the companies that manufacture sugar and sugar-rich products were to be made to pay for universal dental care for everyone, would they be motivated to find a way to eliminate processed sugars from our diet, and in the process create the largest health dividend in centuries?– The appendices of the paper dwell on the connection between ‘intuition’, ‘ideation’ and ‘innovation’. The process of self-experimentation is, according to one scientist commenting on Roberts’ work, unpopular because it is inherently more intuitive, and while that surfaces more ideas and useful (potentially innovative) hypotheses, it is a discovery (empirical) process not a predictive one, and very troubling to conservative scientists who have been taught that only predictive hypotheses are reliable, ‘scientific’. Several of the papers in the appendix take Roberts to task for this, but their arguments sound to me very much like the objection of the orthodoxyto the idea that the Earth is not the centre of the universe, or the early blowback against the Gaia Hypothesis. Ultimately the criticism is exactly that: that Roberts’ approach is unorthodox, and therefore unacceptable, even though it is entirely natural i.e. mimics the way we learn in nature, outside the controlled (?) environment of the laboratory. Roberts painstakingly counters the criticisms, but he and his critics see the world through very different ‘frames’ and I suspect their views on this as ‘science’ are irreconcilable. No need to tell you where I stand.

  4. Allan Moult says:

    I came across Seth Roberts’ Shangri-La Diet on the web and, after reading his paper, decided to give it a go starting eight days ago. Something is working, I’ve lost 4kg, have pulled my belt in a notch and am sleeping better. I’m on the oil regime. I must admit I initially thought it was a gimmick, but after reading more, I got intrigued. Looking forward to seeing your results.

  5. Pearl says:

    Glad Raging Bee didn’t make you feel stung.I’d like to see your standing chair design when you’re done. A lot of throwing oneself on the mercy of the medical establishment forgetting these people are just people and we have half the data to bring to the table for a cure. I agree that it’s important to be aware of what the normal for the body is and what could be affecting it. I remember getting these headaches and realizing at one point, the headaches came when I forgot to take out my hairband so a knot at my neck really was. Similarly a back pain was a tiny gentle but constant bounce of my book bag. Too small to notice really. It couldn’t cause such spasms and yet when I switched bags, presto.

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Anyone impatient to see my results can find them on Seth’s forum:

  7. I’ve lost over fifty pounds since trying it. The mental change is really interesting.I’m looking forward to your status report.

  8. Raging Bee says:

    Damn right I’m “conservative.” And no, I won’t allow you to make a curse-word out of the label.Roberts refers to a study in rural India where a high correlation was found between softness of diet and dental malocclusion. He presents this as another example of…So he’s not dispensing with peer-review altogether? Hey, as long as he’s checking his “self-experimentation” against the documented experiences of others, at least once in awhile, that’s fine with me.

  9. Andrea says:

    I have one slight bone to pick:As a diabetic, I can tell you that doctors push self-experimentation ruthlessly. I’ve been type 1 for almost fourteen years, and the message I’ve received since the beginning is “test test test”–four to ten times per day, keeping track in a log-book, keeping track of carb grams and exercise and insulin doses, precisely for what you’re talkign about: self-experimentation.So the medical establishment is not entirely against it. No endocrinologist or diabetes health professional in their right minds would advocate a diabetic having a problem, testing themselves, and then waiting for professional corroboration.

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