Invasion of the Body Hackers

Every morning before Steven Jonas drinks his cup of coffee he secures a cuff to his bicep and squeezes the small rubber ball attached to a hose, watching the needle dance in the dial. Then, he pricks his finger and feeds a drop of his blood into a tiny electronic device while holding a thermometer underneath his tongue. Standing at his desk at work, he breaks out his iPad, entering information into software about his mood and productivity. In the evening before bed, he records a second round of his morning measurements. Finally, before drifting off to sleep at night, Jonas puts on a headband that measures his REM cycles and other sleep habits.

Jonas is a member of the Quantified Self movement. Quantified Self, or QS, is a group of people coming together who share an interest in “self-knowledge through self-tracking”. Combining curiosity, a splash of narcissism, and wearable technology, the movement consists of a growing number of people who are hacking their own bodies to create better versions of themselves. But whether this is a fad for self-obsessed individuals or an emerging new tool for science remains to be seen.

Self-tracking is not a new concept. Members of QS consider Benjamin Franklin to be the first self-tracker, citing his list of 13 virtues—ranging from temperance to humility that he used to track his daily progress toward “moral perfection”—as evidence. Between Franklin and the new movement, there are numerous examples of tracking, ranging from scientists who tested novel compounds on themselves in the search of medicines to the innovations of today like pacemakers that continually send a patient’s heart data to a doctor’s smartphone. And of course, the quirky folks who tracked themselves out of pure curiosity must not be forgotten. According to members of the new movement, self-trackers have always been around, but they didn’t organize until the 21st century.

The Quantified Self movement began in 2008, growing out of the minds of Kevin Kelley and Gary Wolf, two editors of Wired Magazine in San Francisco. It all started with twelve people in Kelley’s living room sitting around the fireplace sharing their tracking preoccupations. Early adopters were mostly techies from Silicon Valley and other areas on the west coast, but they also included some health nuts, scientists, chronically ill patients, and doctors.

With the help of social media, viral videos, and community organizers, in just four years the movement spread worldwide. Now, with 70 meet-up groups in 50 countries and two annual conferences with high profile sponsors like Intel, thousands of people are sharing their most intimate information.

Members measure anything they can think of, and not everyone measures the same things. No QS handbook exists; it’s a fly by the seat of your pants kind of operation. The most popular things QSers track are weight and sleep. When Jonas began quantifying a few years ago, he started measuring his sleep with a headband equipped with a monitor that vaguely resembled an alarm clock. Jonas fed a month’s worth of data into software on his computer and assessed the quality of his sleep by comparing the lengths of his REM, deep sleep, and light sleep cycles. Jonas is a pretty typical QSer, but there are outliers. For example, toward the periphery of this fringe movement there is a man attempting to record his every thought and transfer it to a computer to create an external version of himself.

Moving beyond individual “science”, QS is trying to find a balance between navel gazing and altruism. In an attempt parlay self-centered experimentation into conclusions that can benefit the whole of society, companies are recruiting QSers into crowdsourcing studies. Members submit their information online, and a company such as Genomera analyzes the pool of data in hopes of drawing broader conclusions.

QS crowdsourcing studies started with a man named Seth Roberts, known in QS circles as the “butter-eater”. For years, Roberts timed himself completing math problems as a test of brain function. In 2009, he noticed that his time drastically decreased. After reviewing other records for an explanation, he found he ate more butter around the same time his brain function improved. Roberts hypothesized that increased butter intake increased brain function.

Testing his theory, Roberts incorporated a half-stick of butter, or 60 grams, into his diet for 10 days, then decreased the amount to 30 grams for 10 days, and finally returned to the half-stick for the last 10 day stretch. Each day after consuming the butter he completed arithmetic problem sets and recorded his times. Roberts’ statistical analysis is complicated, but he concluded that increasing his butter intake shaved 30 milliseconds off of his problem solving time.

While his method looks consistent, a few problems stand out. A scientist would probably suggest adding more participants, more time, and might question how Roberts ate his daily butter since he never clearly specified exactly what he did. Without exact details, replication of his experiment by independent parties is impossible.

In August of 2011 at a QS meet-up in San Jose, he presented the results from his experiment. A cardiologist in the crowd worried Roberts was endangering his life, but Roberts and other QSers, especially those who followed the paleolithic diet fad, were exhilarated. After the presentation, a representative for Genomera approached Roberts and suggested putting together a crowdsourcing study of his experiment.

The “Buttermind” study compared the effects of butter and coconut oil on arithmetic problem solving speed and collected data from 27 participants, one of them being Jonas, over 447 days. Approximately a third of people ate butter only, a third consumed coconut oil only and a third didn’t eat either substance. Genomera introduced coconut oil, a fat other than butter, as a negative control. Eating butter positively correlated with faster times, whereas eating coconut oil and nothing at all did not impact problem solving speeds. Again, Roberts’ statistical analysis of the data from this study—found on his blog—supported his original hypothesis.

Problems similar to the original experiment run rampant in the study, but the biggest problem by far is that participants were not “blind” to their groups. All of the subjects knew which group they belonged to, potentially biasing the results. The same was true for the analysts; they knew which groups they were observing before the analysis was complete. Without adherence to scientific standards, the scientific community cannot accept data and the associated vague conclusions as valid.

While QS might be struggling to re-define itself for science at large, its purpose for the individual is still acceptable. “It’s not science for the purpose of filling textbooks, but science for the purpose of fulfilling life,” Jonas said. QS is a means to learn about yourself and to improve your quality of life through both the act of quantifying and its potential outcomes.

The future of the Quantified Self depends on the will of its members. Kelley and Wolf emphasize the organic nature of the movement. It has no set path; instead the many whims of QSers determine its trajectory. There is no end-game, no concrete goal except to learn more about the self through tracking in whatever form that takes.

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