Guinea pig learning how to do proper self-experiments

Five mistakes biohackers make (and I’ve definitely made them)

Ever tried turning yourself into a human guinea pig?

Oddly enough, I have.

In attempts to improve my attention and memory, I have zapped my brain, altered my brainwaves, and even mailed my poop to a faraway lab. At other points, I tracked my time usage every five minutes using alarms and spreadsheets. I wrote down everything I ate. I went into a room full of strangers and laughed hysterically for an hour.

While this may sound bizarre, plenty of people are doing it. Some call themselves biohackers, others Quantified Selfers, others self-experimenters.

What if you were a human guinea pig already and you didn’t know it?

When we go into an ice cream shop and ask to try out multiple flavors, we compare the effects to see which one our taste buds like best. When we try out different workout regimens or diets in order to get in shape — and keep trying until we find the right one — we are taking baby steps toward human guinea pigging.

With a few tweaks, these could have become true self-experiments.

The goal of human guinea pigging is to learn about yourself as you are now, try things out on yourself, and see what helps make you a better or worse version of yourself. To make it a bit more powerful, you use measures that are as close to objective as possible. This keeps you honest and keeps you from conveniently mis-remembering things as better than they actually were (or, worse than they were, if you’re a pessimistic type).

The key is to avoid a few basic mistakes. These are five I’ve definitely screwed up before…

  1. No (proper) baseline: Before grad school, I found out about a supplement that supposedly had cognitive enhancing abilities. Curious, I decided to try it out. At home, I couldn’t find the cognitive tests I usually used. So, I tried a different set of cognitive tests to measure my cognitive performance before and after trying the supplement. My performance went up…so, the supplements worked, right! Wrong. What was the problem? Practice effects. With most cognitive tests, you need to take the tests a few times before your performance plateaus. What I should have done was take the cognitive test a few times first and then take the supplements. Only then could I know whether my improvement was due to the supplements or whether it was just due to practice effects.
  2. Too many variables: During college, I gained around 30 pounds without noticing it (thank you baggy sweatshirts, Boston winters, and a breathtaking lack of self-awareness). At some point, I took a look at myself in the mirror, had a mild panic, and immediately began doing about a dozen things differently in order to get my old body back. The good news was that I recaptured my former weight, but the bad news is that I have no idea which of the many things I did (sleeping more, cutting out energy drinks, not eating after 7 pm, drinking only water, weight lifting, etc) made the biggest difference.
  3. Incomplete sample size: My mother told me about a guy she met in her early 20’s who she thought was ridiculously good looking. The first time she met him, she could barely think because she was so insanely, outrageously attracted to him. She saw him a few more times, finally listened to him when he spoke, and when the raging hormones subsided, she realized they had almost nothing in common. What if she’d only taken that first sample (their first meeting)? She might have mistakenly thought he was her one true love. Which would have been the stuff of a great rom-com but a terrible life story.
  4. Inaccurate measurements: Ever tried to measure your weight on a scale that varied your weight by a few pounds each time, even though you took the measures back to back? Unless your scale was also teleporting you onto other planets where you weigh different amounts (in that case, maybe let Elon Musk know you’ve found a much cheaper way to get to Mars), that’s a sign to throw that scale away.
  5. Poor record-keeping: People with handwriting as awful as mine should never be allowed to keep a journal. When I was a competitive athlete in high school, I used to write down my workouts and drills, as well as my thoughts and feelings before and after matches. A few years later, I came upon one of these old journals. Expecting a treasure trove of insight, I went to the kitchen and started boiling some water for tea — I was going to sit down and really cherish these detailed notes. I flipped open the first page. And discovered that I could read — maybe — half of it. Tried another page: same deal. Kept paging through. Soon, I realized that even if I could read it, what would I do with it? With little ability to search or digitize it, I knew I’d never actually use this information. Result: Sadness. Deep. Sadness. Ever since, I’ve relied on apps on my smartphone for workout tracking and journaling.

There you have it. Five mistakes biohackers make — and as you just discovered, I’ve definitely made them. But now, you don’t have to. You’re welcome.

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Photo credit: by Otsphoto