Seth Roberts leads a better life through numbers.
He’s an advocate of “Quantified Self,” the movement started by Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly to capture data about yourself (such as what you eat, how much you sleep, your mood) to monitor and improve your day-to-day functioning.
A number of activity monitors, sleep monitors, and other biometric devices are readily available if you want to take the plunge, but the best place to start is certainly Roberts’s blog.
We caught up with Roberts to hear what he has to say on the topic and where it’s heading. Here’s the highlight reel:
- Quantified Self was born from studying how medication did (or didn’t) affect his acne.
- It’s not an entirely new idea – people have been measuring blood sugar for years, for example. Roberts is demonstrating that the same principals can be applied throughout a wide berth of topics.
BUSINESS INSIDER: What’s your general background? What do you do and how did you discover/develop Quantified Self?
SETH ROBERTS: I’m a psychology professor. Have been one since I finished school. My research area within psychology is animal learning. I started measuring myself when I was a graduate student. I wanted to learn how to do experiments so I did a bunch of experiments involving myself — for example, juggling. The one that impressed me the most was about acne. I discovered that of the two medicines my dermatologist had prescribed, one worked and the other didn’t. He (my dermatologist) had said nothing like “one of them might not work”. I was really surprised that it had been so easy to improve on his advice.
BI: For the normals, what is Quantified Self?
SR: Measuring yourself numerically, usually again and again over a substantial length of time.
BI: What kinds of useful data can people learn about themselves if they started keeping track?
SR: People have been measuring their blood sugar level regularly for decades. After I measured my acne, I found it really useful to measure my sleep, mood, and weight. Nowadays I also measure my brain function using a reaction-time test. Lots of athletes measure their performance.
BI: Was there ever any sort of breakthrough moment where you realised people were actually paying attention to your ideas? How did you get your work/ideas noticed?
SR: A Freakonomics column about my work in the New York Times caused people to pay attention to my ideas. It enabled me to write a book about how to lose weight called The Shangri-La Diet. Before that column, no one seemed interested.
BI: You have a cool blog that’s always kept current. How important was this in getting Quantified Self out there?
SR: As much as I would like to say it was important, I don’t think it was.
BI: How does a psychologist come to develop ideas so far removed from his field?
For a long time, my discoveries (e.g., new ways to lose weight, to sleep better, how to be in a better mood, and so on) baffled me. I knew enough about science — I am a professional scientist — to know they were important. I knew they would be true for many people even though I had mainly studied myself. The strange thing about these discoveries was that I was not an expert in these fields. I was not a weight control expert, a sleep expert, a mood expert, and so on. So how could I possible make real discoveries in these areas? As a professor at UC Berkeley, I knew that no chemistry professor had ever made a significant discovery in physics, and no physics professor had ever made a significant discovery in chemistry. That sort of discovery not in your field of expertise never happened. Yet I had done it several times.
This was exceedingly strange. More recently, however, I have found other people doing similar things. They are always outside academia and their discoveries would ordinarily go unnoticed. Like me, they managed to figure out how to improve their health in ways different than what experts told them. These new ways were much better than what experts told them to do. An example is Dennis Mangan, who figured out that his mother’s Restless Leg Syndrome might be cured by large doses of niacin. It turned out he was right. Lots of people have Restless Leg Syndrome — this is an important discovery. I wrote about several examples in Boing Boing.
BI: What’s the future of Quantified Self?
I believe that the Quantified Self movement will ultimately be important as the beginning of many people figuring out better solutions to their health problems than what experts (such as doctors) have told them. An alternative to mainstream medicine that has nothing to do with making money (in contrast to Alternative Medicine, which is another group of experts). The Paleo movement is another side of this — people doing something different than what mainstream nutrition experts tell them to do. I’ve recently started a Meetup group called Make Yourself Healthy to try to learn more about how to do this (improve on expert advice), to find out what’s been learned this way, and to encourage this sort of thing.
In other words, I believe that the Quantified Self movement will ultimately be important because, in a small way, it encourages people to try to do better than expert advice. To think for themselves. We’re used to relying on experts for everything; experts tell us to rely on them. They tell us it is dangerous to not rely on them. Our whole economy is built on specialisation. So this is a difficult step for most people to take.
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