Four Quantified-Self Talks

At the recent Quantified Self Meetup in San Francisco, four talks especially interested me.

The first was by a woman who has been making scrapbooks about her life for a long time. She now has nineteen volumes. They contain the usual scrapbook stuff (photos, ticket stubs, drawings — she’s a designer — newspaper clippings, receipts, and so on) plus her design work and her medical records. They help her remember her life. “I look at them so I won’t make the same mistakes in relationships,” she said. “How’s that working?” someone asked. It’s a lot of work and she’s now three months behind. Her talk was about what sort of computer tool would make the whole thing easier. It made me wonder why woman scrapbook so much more than men. My earlier post about scrapbooking didn’t answer that question. The whole thing reminded me of Jill Price:

At the age of 10, Price began to keep almost daily diaries, which she then saved — thousands of pages filled with her impossibly tiny handwriting.

The curious thing about Price’s diaries is that her memory is so astonishingly good that she can remember her past in great detail without them. Apparently she kept such detailed diaries because of her great memory or both have some common cause.

The second was by a man who had recorded his daily activities in detail for five years. A graph showed that he had a free-running sleep cycle: He went to sleep slightly later each day. At certain times he’d be awake at night and asleep during the day. He started keeping these records because he was washing his roommates’ dishes a lot and wanted to see how much time it was taking. (Much less than he thought, it turned out.) I asked what he’d learned from his records. The sleep pattern, he said. Someone told me he must have meant the regularity of the pattern. His records had no obvious value so again I wondered: What’s the evolutionary reason? He enjoys keeping these records. Why? In some ways it’s a male version of scrapbooking: You can’t easily show it to someone (in line with male lack of communicativeness), but, like a scrapbook, it’s a long-term record of random stuff that helps you remember what happened.

The third was about a startup called Skimble. Maria Ly and her partner have created a web app to keep track of your outdoor activities, such as climbing and kayaking. She does a lot of climbing and the app started as a way for her to keep track of it. She used to be an engineer at Google. This seems promising because she was trying to solve her own problem, not someone else’s. Apps to help other people self-experiment don’t get very far, in my experience.

The fourth was a kind of combination of the first three. Robin Barooah wanted to meditate more. His bouts of meditation last a half-hour or more, so it wasn’t easy. After a retreat, he started meditating more but the effect wore off within a month or so. His talk was about an iphone app for tracking his meditation. After he started using it, about a month ago, he’s been achieving his goal of regular daily meditation better than ever before. It reminds me of a University of Colorado engineering professor who stopped binging on ice cream as soon as he forced himself to keep track of what he ate.

5 Replies to “Four Quantified-Self Talks”

  1. Hi seth,
    Do you remember the name of the iphone app? I googled, but there are so many meditation timers out there that it’s hard to find.

    Speaking of meditation, and specifically Buddhist meditation, one of its goals is to free you from the illusion that there is a separate, permanent self. I wonder if the impulse to collect data that isn’t used for anything comes from the need to prop up the illusion. The scrapbook (or unused data) is an attempt to preserve and make permanent the self that vanishes with each passing day/hour/minute.


  2. Hi Seth and David,

    The iPhone App is called “Equanimity” – there’s a link to it here:

    Disclosure: I’m the author of the app.

    The idea that led to the app was the desire to create a ‘mirror’ in which I could see the reality of my practice. I had noticed that I tended to have thoughts like “It’s too late today, I’ll meditate tomorrow”, or “I meditated yesterday, and I feel great today – which led to me not actually practicing, and so I wanted a record that would provide an antidote to such thoughts.

    I’d found the same approach (of having data to counteract false beliefs) to be effective in breaking my coffee habit ( earlier in the year, so I was fairly convinced that the same things would work for creating a positive habit.

  3. “pparently she kept such detailed diaries because of her great memory or both have some common cause.”

    Seth, writing things down improves memory. Must’ve been some basic cog-psych stuff from the old days, maybe Tulving, or Craik, or somebody.

    I’m not being a nitpick about this, though. Maybe there’s some other benefits of self-data collection besides analysis that help people. Do you have any thoughts on this? Perhaps people maintain more continuous self-images – the only studies I’ve seen with this concept examine the effects on intertemporal preferences, but I’m sure there’s plenty of other interesting things. Or perhaps those who have such self-images are more likely to test data.

  4. Haha, actually I just had another thought – you know how there’s been a trend in the last ten years of doing psych studies where people self-report on blackberries or whatever a few times a day? Kahneman’s done them, my old advisor who does mind-wandering stuff did a few, among many others.

    Point is, I’d love to see a study correlating compliance with these blackberry quizzes and various personality measures. I can think of a few that might be pretty intuitive, and ran it with a big group (maybe not in the furloughed UC system, though) you could make a neat story out of it.

    I’m not an individual differences kind of guy, but still.

  5. Robin, thanks for the info. I have added it to the post. I didn’t know you were the person behind the false-god-of-coffee experiment. That was great!

    MikeY, yes, writing stuff down improves memory. Price’s diaries are unlikely to be the reason for her fantastic memory because she also had a great memory for stuff that wasn”t likely to be in them — all sorts of world events. If you are saying that maybe the reason we have a desire to keep diaries, scrapbooks, and other records is so that we will remember, that’s an interesting idea. Price found her great memory a huge burden but of course no memory at all is even worse.

    In evolutionary terms, widespread literacy is recent — so recent that I doubt evolution shaped us to write things down so that we will remember them. My guess is that scrapbooking and the computerized record-keeping project I described derive from the combination of a desire to tell stories and a desire to make art. The evolutionary reasons for those I think I understand. Scrapbooking is obviously an artistic kind of story-telling. The computerized record-keeping I mention (a log of daily activities) was in fact artistically done. Different activities were given different colors and the whole record was nicely displayed.

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