Seth Roberts is a professor of psychology at Berkeley who has used self-experimentation to generate and study hypotheses about sleep, mood, and nutrition. He wrote an article in Behavioral and Brain Sciences describing ten of his self-experiments. Some of his findings:
Seeing faces in the morning on television decreased mood in the evening and improved mood the next day . . . Standing 8 hours per day reduced early awakening and made sleep more restorative . . . Drinking unflavored fructose water caused a large weight loss that has lasted more than 1 year . . .
As Seth describes it, self-experimentation generates new hypotheses and is also an inexpensive way to test and modify them. One of the commenters, Sigrid Glenn, points out that this is particularly true with long-term series of measurements that it might be difficult to do on experimental volunteers.
Behavioral and Brain Sciences is a journal of discussion papers, and this one had 13 commmenters and a response by Roberts. About half the commenters love the paper and half hate it. My favorite “hate it” comment is by David Booth, who writes, “Roberts can swap anecdotes with his readers for a very long time, but scientific understanding is not advanced until a literature-informed hypothesis is tested between or within groups in a fully controlled design shown to be double-blind.” Tough talk, and controlled experiments are great (recall the example of the effects of estrogen therapy), but Booth is being far too restrictive. Useful hypotheses are not always “literature-informed,” and lots has been learned scientifically by experiments without controls and blindness. This “NIH” model of science is fine but certainly is not all-encompassing (a point made in Cabanac’s discussion of the Roberts paper).
The negative commenters were mostly upset by the lack of controls and blinding in self-experiments, whereas the positive commenters focused on individual variation, and the possibility of self-monitoring to establish effective treatments (for example, for smoking cessation) for individuals.
In his response, Roberts discusses the various ways in which self-experimentation fits into the landscape of scientific methods.
I liked the paper. I followed the usual strategy with discussion papers and read the commentary and the response first. This was all interesting, but then when I went back to read the paper I was really impressed, first by all the data (over 50 (that’s right, 50) scatterplots of different data he had gathered), and second by the discussion and interpretation of his findings in the context of the literature in psychology, biology, and medicine.
The article has as much information as is in many books, and it could easily be expanded into a book (“Self-experimentation as a Way of Life”?). Anyway, reading the article and discussions led me to a few thoughts which maybe Seth or someone else could answer.
First, Seth’s 10 experiments were pretty cool. But they took ten years to do. It seems that little happened for the first five years or so, but then there were some big successes. It would be helpful to know if he started doing something in last five years that made his methods more effective. If someone else wants to start self-experimenting, is there a way to skip over those five slow years?
Second, his results on depression and weight control, if they turn out to generalize to many others, are huge. What’s the next step? Might there be a justification for relatively large controlled studies (for example, on 100 or 200 volunteers, randomly assigned to different treatments)? Even if the treatments are not yet perfected, I’d think that a successful controlled trial would be a big convincer which could lead to greater happiness for many people.
Third, as some of the commenters pointed out, good self-experimentation includes manipulations (that is, experimentation) but also careful and dense measurements–“self-surveillance”. If I were to start self-experimentation, I might start with self-surveillance, partly because the results of passive measurements might themselves suggest ideas. All of us do some self-experimentation now and then (trying different diets, exercise regimens, work strategies, and soon). Where I suspect that we fall short is in the discipline of regular measurements for a long enough period of time.
Finally, what does this all say about how we should do science? How can self-experimentation and related semi-formal methods of scientific inquiry be integrated into the larger scientific enterprise? What is the point where researchers should jump to a larger controlled trial? Seth talks about the benefits of proceeding slowly and learning in detail, but if you have an idea that something might really work, there are benefits in learning more about it sooner.
P.S. Some of Seth’s follow-up studies on volunteers are described here (for some reason, this document is not linked to from Seth’s webpage, but it’s referred to in his Behavioral and Brain Sciences article).