Self-Tracking: What I’ve Learned

I want to measure, day by day, how well my brain is working. After I saw big fast effects of flaxseed oil, I realized how well my brain works (a) depends on what I eat and (b) can change quickly. Maybe other things besides dietary omega-3 matter. Maybe large amounts of omega-6 make my brain work worse, for example. Another reason for this project is that I’m interested in how to generate ideas, a neglected part of scientific methodology. Maybe this sort of long-term monitoring can generate new ideas about what affects our brains.

So I needed a brain task that I’ll do daily. When I set out to devise a good task, here’s what I already knew:

1. Many numbers, not one. A task that provides many numbers per test (e.g., many latencies) is better than a task that provides only one number (e.g., percent correct). Gathering many numbers per test allows me to look at their distribution and choose an efficient method of combining (i.e., averaging) them into one number. (E.g., harmonic mean, geometric mean, trimmed mean.) Gathering many numbers also allows me to calculate a standard error, which helps identify unusual scores.

2. Graded, not binary. Graded measures (e.g., latencies) are better than binary ones (e.g., right/wrong).

Every experimental psychologist knows this. What none of them know is how to make the task fun. If I’m going to do something every day, it matters a great deal whether I enjoy it or not. It might be the difference between possible and impossible. People enjoy video games, which is a kind of existence proof. Video games have dozens of elements; which matter? Here’s what I figured out by trial and error:

3. Hand-eye coordination. Making difficult movements that involve hand-eye coordination is fun. My bilboquet taught me this. Presumably this tendency originated during the tool-making hobbyist stage of human evolution; it caused people to become better and better at making tools. Ordinary typing involves skilled movement but not hand-eye coordination. This idea has worked. I led me to try one-finger typing (where I look at the keyboard while I type) instead of regular typing. And, indeed, I enjoy the one-finger typing task, whereas I didn’t enjoy the ordinary typing tasks I’ve tried.

4. Detailed problem-by-problem feedback. Right/wrong is the crudest form of feedback; it doesn’t do much. What I find is much more motivating is more graded feedback based on performance on the same problem.

5. Less than 5 minutes. The longer the task the more data, sure, but also the more reluctant I am to do it. Three minutes seems close to ideal: long enough for the task to be a pleasant break but not so long that it seems like a burden.

Experimental psychology is a hundred years old. Small daily tests is an unexplored ecology that might have practical benefits.

10 Replies to “Self-Tracking: What I’ve Learned”

  1. Seth: Off topic (I seem to have lost your email address), but have you heard of something called ThreeLac?

    It’s a probiotic, a mixture of three bacteria, none of which are found in the usual probiotics, and testimonials, e.g. on Amazon, are over-the-top. Many people claim that it completely restored their health, in particular by killing Candida and healing leaky gut.

  2. Dennis, no I hadn’t. That’s really interesting. I drink Rejuvelac. Which I get from the Rejuvenation Company and learned about from another reader comment. The website you cited doesn’t seem to exist.

  3. I don’t know about the candida product but my Autism kids get really hard to manage when they are off Nystatin for a few days. If I knew of a cheap easy to get fermented food I could convince them to like I’d feed them a ton of it.

    Rock Band 2 song drumming meets some of your criteria. It’s wildly fun, can be _really_ hard, and if you finish a song it’s graded numerically with longest streak or correct notes and percent of notes correct.

    Unfortunately it’s 3-5 minutes for just two numbers and it takes a minute or two to get set up. I’m thinking of plotting fish oil vs. my scores, because I’ve noticed that some days I can finish really difficult songs on the hard (not expert) level. Then another day I’m kinda klutzy, miss too many notes and fail out of a song a beat just a few days ago.

  4. i had candida and tried Nystatin; but found that citricidal (grapefruit seed extract) works better, and you can stop taking it after the candida clears. it’s awful tasting so you may have to put in a capsule with some sort of filler. It also is suppose to have anti-biotic and anti-viral properties.

  5. I am curious, how do you account for the fact that practice will make you better at tasks, especially hand-eye coordination heavy ones, over time?

    Thanks for the great site.


  6. Thanks, Rich. The effect of practice gets smaller and smaller. In other words, learning slows down. And the speed of learning, whatever it is, can be estimated and subtracted – that is, allowed for.

  7. It would be great if there was some sort of “game” for a phone like iPhone or Blackberry that would satisfy your 5 criteria and would keep records that could be transferred to a computer for statistical purposes. This would be especially good with a portable gadget because, obviously, it’s sometimes not convenient to be near a computer, and also these portable gadgets all have alarms etc. to remind you to take the game/test. I wish there was something like that for iPhone.

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