Charles Dickens, Demons, and Personal Science

In a review of biographies of Charles Dickens I found this:

In 1849 he showed a short account of his early years to his close friend John Forster, revealing a story he never told his own family: the shame-inducing months he spent, while his father was in a debtor’s prison, as a 12-year-old “laboring hind” in a factory that bottled shoe-blacking.

Suddenly I understood why he wrote Oliver Twist and why it is so good. Budding writers are told write what you know. They should be told write what you feel bad about.

The work of James Pennebaker has shown the benefits  of even small amounts of self-disclosure. No doubt this is why all sorts of psychotherapy, supposedly based on enormously different theories, help roughly the same amount: All involve self-disclosure. I see this effect as something built into us by evolution  to increase self-disclosure. Talking about bad experiences helps your listeners avoid what happened to you. To motivate such disclosures, evolution has built into us something that causes us to feel better after we talk this way.

Scientists are not told study what you know and they are especially not told study what you feel bad about. Scientists are mostly men, of course, and that sort of thing makes men uncomfortable. My personal science, however, suggests the correctness of this idea.

The Turning Point in My Self-Experimentation

Several people have said that bedtime honey made them wake up too early. For example:

No effect for me, worse for my wife (hours of wakefulness in the middle of the night after a few hours of sleep)

The commenter said this meant it wasn’t working.

My view is different. To me, this experience suggests that there is something safe, cheap and practical (honey) that has a powerful and non-intuitive effect on sleep. Finding something like that is extremely hard. (Drug companies have spent billions of dollars trying to do this, with far worse results.) It isn’t easy or obvious or trivial to learn how to use that powerful force to produce improvement rather than harm (“hours of wakefulness in the middle of the night”), but I am sure it is possible.

My first important use of self-experimentation was in graduate school. I discovered that one of the medicines my dermatologist had prescribed for my acne wasn’t working. The notion that a prescribed medicine didn’t work is useful, but not shocking. This success was enough to launch me into self-experimentation to improve my sleep — specifically, to reduce early awakening. This turned out to be very hard.

After ten years of trial and error (all error), I discovered something that made my early awakening reliably worse. I was thrilled. After ten years, something finally made a difference, albeit in the wrong direction. It was a turning point. I did many experiments and finally figured out that any breakfast made my sleep worse. This was far more progress than finding out that a prescribed medicine didn’t work. It was progress because (a) nutrition experts usually said that breakfast was “the most important meal of the day”. My discovery flatly contradicted that. I became a lot more skeptical of experts, a view that has served me well. (b) Eliminating breakfast greatly reduced early awakening, and (c) the discovery showed that self-experimentation could do better than expert advice in surprising ways. My interesting self-experimentation began with the discovery of something that made my sleep worse.

I too have found that although I am sleeping much better, bedtime honey and other evening sugars have also made me wake up too early more often. I too need to learn how to better use this new knowledge.

Self-Experimenters Wanted: Idiopathic Thrombocytopenia Purpura

A woman named Sara Lake has a condition called Idiopathic Thrombocytopenia Purpura (ITP),  an autoimmune condition in which your body makes antibodies to your own platelets. She wrote:

I’m having some success keeping my platelet levels on the  “high side of very low” using diet and lifestyle, but there is so little research into this rare disorder that I’m just trying anything my education suggests might help. I would love to connect with other self-experimenters with this condition.  I believe that most, if not all, autoimmune conditions can be cured if the triggers are identified (for example, as has been done in the case of celiac disease), but it’s a long process. If you know of any other people with this disease please pass on my email address, which is sara.lake (at)

Saturated Fat and Heart Attacks

After I discovered that butter made me faster at arithmetic, I started eating half a stick (66 g) of butter per day. After a talk about it, a cardiologist in the audience said I was killing myself. I said that the evidence that butter improved my brain function was much clearer than the evidence that butter causes heart disease. The cardiologist couldn’t debate this; he seemed to have no idea of the evidence.

Shortly before I discovered the butter/arithmetic connection, I had a heart scan (a tomographic x-ray) from which is computed an Agaston score, a measure of calcification of your blood vessels. The Agaston score is a good predictor of whether you will have a heart attack. The higher your score, the greater the probability. My score put me close to the median for my age. A year later — after eating lots of butter every day during that year — I got a second scan. Most people get about 25% worse each year.  My second scan showed regression (= improvement). It was 40% better (less) than expected (a 25% increase). A big increase in butter consumption was the only aspect of my diet that I consciously changed between Scan 1 and Scan 2.

The improvement I observed, however surprising, was consistent with a 2004 study that measured narrowing of the arteries as a function of diet. About 200 women were studied for three years. There were three main findings. 1. The more saturated fat, the less narrowing. Women in the highest quartile of saturated fat intake didn’t have, on average, any narrowing. 2. The more polyunsaturated fat, the more narrowing. 3. The more carbohydrate, the more narrowing. Of all the nutrients examined, only saturated fat clearly reduced narrowing. Exactly the opposite of what we’ve been told.

As this article explains, the original idea that fat causes heart disease came from Ancel Keys, who omitted most of the available data from his data set. When all the data were considered, there was no connection between fat intake and heart disease. There has never been convincing evidence that saturated fat causes heart disease, but somehow this hasn’t stopped the vast majority of doctors and nutrition experts from repeating what they’ve been told.

Our Need for Morning Faces: Does Isolation Cause Delusions?

In 1995, I discovered that seeing faces in the morning raised my mood the next day. For example, seeing faces Monday morning improved my mood on Tuesday (but not Monday). Study of the effect suggested we have a face-sensitive oscillator that controls mood and sleep. The oscillator needs morning-face exposure to work properly — faces “push” the oscillator as you would push a swing. Long ago, this oscillator synchronized the mood and sleep of people who lived together. The synchronization helped them cooperate. It is much easier to work with a happy person than an unhappy person and, of course, much easier to work with someone awake than someone asleep.

My results suggested you need to see morning faces on the order of 30 minutes to get a big effect. The faces need to be similar to what you’d see in a conversation. Looking at people on the subway doesn’t count. Nowadays, as far as I can tell, hardly anyone gets the right input. In extreme cases, this causes depression, poor sleep, bipolar disorder, and anxiety disorders. What else might it cause?  Continue reading “Our Need for Morning Faces: Does Isolation Cause Delusions?”

Alternate-Day Fasting Improved My Fasting Blood Sugar

A few days ago, I gave a talk at a Quantified Self Meetup in San Francisco titled “Why is my blood sugar high?” (PowerPoint here and here). My main point was that alternate-day fasting (eating much less than usual every other day) quickly brought my fasting blood sugar level from the mid-90s to the low 80s, which is where I wanted it. I was unsure how to do this and had tried several things that hadn’t worked.

Not in the talk is an explanation of my results in terms of setpoint (blood sugar setpoint, not body fat setpoint). Your body tries to maintain a certain blood sugar level — that’s obvious. Not obvious at all is what controls the setpoint. This question is usually ignored — for example, in Wikipedia’s blood sugar regulation entry. Maybe Type 2 diabetes occurs because the blood sugar setpoint is too high. If we can find out what environmental events control the setpoint, we will be in a much better position to prevent and reverse Type 2 diabetes (as with obesity).

A few years ago, I discovered that walking an hour per day improved my fasting blood sugar. Does walking lower the setpoint? I didn’t ask this question, a curious omission from the author of The Shangri-La Diet. If walking lowered the setpoint, walking every other day might have the same effect as walking every day.

I was pushed toward this line of thought because alternate-day fasting seems to lower the blood-sugar setpoint. After I started alternate-day fasting, it took about three days for my fasting blood sugar to reach a new lower level. After that, it was low every day, not just after fast days. My experience suggests that the blood-sugar setpoint depends on what your blood sugar is. When your blood sugar is high, the setpoint becomes higher; when your blood sugar is low, the setpoint becomes lower. Tim Lundeen had told me something similar to this.

If you tried to lower your fasting blood sugar and succeeded, I hope you will say in the comments how you did this. I tried three things that didn’t work: darker bedroom, Vitamin B supplement, and cinnamon. Eating low carb raises fasting blood sugar, according to Paul Jaminet.

Assorted Links

Assorted Links

Thanks to Phil Alexander and Casey Manion.

Cheap Good Science

Last weekend I attended EG, a TED-like conference in Monterey. One of the speakers, a woman named Hong Yi, made representational art from cheap materials  — a portrait from coffee-stained napkins, for example. The most stirring talks were by Matt Harding (dancing video) and Jo Montgomery and Chuck Johnson (circus school) but she, more than anyone else, seemed to have done something with big implications. Her art was attractive, profitable, very cheap, and diverse (many materials, many representational styles). If anyone else has ever done this, I don’t know about it. She is an architect in Shanghai and her art began because she was in China. At a wholesale supply store, she came across very cheap candles. She realized she could buy enough of them to make a picture with one candle = one pixel. I imagine people will be watching Harding’s video a hundred years from now and the underlying point of Montgomery and Johnson’s circus school will be valid forever, but both were enormous expensive unique efforts. Hong’s work was much easier and cost almost nothing. The benefit/cost ratio was very high and millions of people could do something like what she did.

I realized that my work resembled hers. Continue reading “Cheap Good Science”

Assorted Links

Thanks to Alex Chernavsky.

Assorted Links

  • An Epidemic of Absence (book about allergies and autism)
  • Professor of medicine who studies medical error loses a leg due to medical error. “Despite calls to action by patient advocates and the adoption of safety programs, there is no sign that the numbers of errors, injuries and deaths [due to errors] have improved.” Nothing about consequences for the person who made the error that caused him to lose a leg.
  • Doubts about spending a huge amount of research money on a single project (brain mapping). Which has yet to produce even one useful result.
  • Cancer diagnosis innovation by somebody without a job (a 15-year-old)
  • Someone named Rob Rhinehart has greatly reduced the time and money he spends on food by drinking something he thinks contains all essential nutrients. Someone pointed out to him that he needs bacteria, which he doesn’t have. (No doubt several types of bacteria are best.) He doesn’t realize that Vitamin K has several forms. I suspect he’s getting too little omega-3. This reminds me of a man who greatly reduced how much he slept by sleeping 15 minutes every 3 hours. It didn’t work out well for him (his creativity vanished and he became bored and unhappy). In Rhinehart’s case, I can’t predict what will happen so it’s fascinating. When something goes wrong, however, I’ll be surprised if he can figure out what caused the problem.

Thanks to Amish Mukharji.

Value of Self-Experimentation With Chronic Conditions

A reader with an autistic son sent me a link to a story in the New York Times Magazine by Susannah Meadows about a boy with arthritis who was cured by dietary changes, including omega-3 and probiotics. Conventional doctors and the boy’s father had resisted trying the dietary solution; Meadows is the boy’s mother.  An expert in the boy’s problem, Dr. Lisa Imundo, director of pediatric rheumatology at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center, told Meadows that “she [Imundo] had treated thousands of kids with arthritis . . .  and diet changes did not work.” It took only six weeks of the dietary change to discover it did work. Eventually the boy’s arthritis was completely gone. It may have been caused by antibiotics he’d been given for pneumonia. The antibiotics may have killed his gut flora making his intestines too permeable.

Had Meadows accepted what mainstream doctors told her, her son would have taken medicine for the rest of his life — medicine that wasn’t working well. Dr. Imundo wanted to double the dose.

The reader with an autistic son explained how it related to this blog:

It particularly supports the value of self-experimentation in these chronic conditions, especially when there is heterogeneity. The heterogeneity of autism was obvious to me from early on, although I’ve come to realize it’s not obvious to everyone else. Autisms of known genetic causes have different tracks (Fragile X is the best-studied). Broad studies of autism start with a huge disadvantage: they are studying different disorders of similar presentation, and what helps in one case may harm in another. After the steady drip drip of your talking about n=1 experiments, it dawned on me that this applied to our situation. You didn’t need to do a massive, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of acne medication any more than I needed to enroll a thousand families in a study of diet and autism. I could start with dinner.

The reader found dietary n=1 experimentation with her son to be very helpful.

Update. After I wrote this, Michelle Francl, a chemist who writes for for Slate’s Medical Examiner column, complained about the “alternative medicine” in Meadow’s piece. Francl fails to mention that dietary changes completely cured the problem, thus avoiding the need for dangerous drugs that weren’t working. Francl says that Meadows has “an irrational fear of chemicals”.

No Stagnation in My Kitchen

Stagnation of innovation is often illustrated with kitchens. In 1996, Paul Krugman wrote, “I live in a house with a late-50s-vintage kitchen, never remodeled. The non-self-defrosting refrigerator, and the gas range with its open pilot lights . . .  it is still a pretty functional kitchen.” (Illustrating, at least, his lack of change.) Tyler Cowen said “if he were to introduce his grandmother to a modern American kitchen, it wouldn’t be all that earth-shattering for her.” David Brooks mentioned lack of innovation in many things, including “appliances”. Last week, the Economist said:

Take kitchens. In 1900 kitchens in even the poshest of households were primitive things. . . . Fast forward to 1970 and middle-class kitchens in America and Europe feature gas and electric hobs [= burners] and ovens, fridges, food processors, microwaves and dishwashers. Move forward another 40 years, though, and things scarcely change.

For a long time I wanted to go to the giant kitchen and housewares trade show in Chicago every summer, until this article convinced it would be the same old stuff with tiny variations.

In contrast, my kitchen has changed greatly in the last ten years. Here’s how: Continue reading “No Stagnation in My Kitchen”

Elements of Personal Science

To do personal science well, what should you learn?

Professional scientists learn how to do science mostly in graduate school, mostly by imitation, although they might take a statistics class. Personal scientists rarely have anyone to imitate, so have more need to understand basic principles. There are five skills/dimensions that matter. Here are a few comments about each one: Continue reading “Elements of Personal Science”

Is Jimmy Moore’s Ketosis Diet the Shangri-La Diet in Disguise?

I have recently encountered three examples that suggest low-carb diets don’t work well long-term:

1. Alex Chernavsky tried a low-carb diet in 2002. Starting at 270 pounds, he lost 70 pounds. A year later, he started to rapidly regain the lost weight. He stopped the diet.

2. A “medical professional” started at about 260 pounds (she’s 5’3″).  After reading Wheat Belly, she gave up wheat. “After several months of being wheat free I lost 10 lbs. But that’s where it stopped.” Then she did  full low-carb. “From May to July I did what basically was Atkins induction. I lost 20 lbs but then the weight loss stopped.”

3. Jimmy Moore lost a lot of weight eating low-carb. Starting in 2004 at 410 pounds, he lost 180 pounds. Then he gained half of it back, ending up near 300 pounds in early 2012. Continue reading “Is Jimmy Moore’s Ketosis Diet the Shangri-La Diet in Disguise?”

Bayesian Shangri-La Diet

In July, a Cambridge UK programmer named John Aspden wanted to lose weight. He had already lost weight via a low-carb (no potatoes, rice, bread, pasta, fruit juice) diet. That was no longer an option. He came across the Shangri-La Diet. It seemed crazy but people he respected took it seriously so he tried it.  It worked. His waist shrank by four belt notches in four months. With no deprivation at all. Continue reading “Bayesian Shangri-La Diet”

Assorted Links

Thanks to Dave Lull.

50 Years of Knuckle Cracking Did Not Produce Arthritis

Warned by relatives that knuckle cracking causes arthritis, Donald Unger decided to crack only the knuckles of his left hand. For 50 years he frequently cracked his left hand, never his right. Finally he wrote a letter to a scientific journal (in which he calls himself “the author”) pointing out that he did not have arthritis in either hand, supporting the conclusion of another study which studied a much smaller amount of knuckle cracking.

Thanks to Bryan Castañeda via Now I Know.

Why Self-Track? The Possibility of Hard-to-Explain Change

My personal science introduced me to a research method I have never seen used in research articles or described in discussions of scientific method. It might be called wait and see. You measure something repeatedly, day after day, with the hope that at some point it will change dramatically and you will be able to determine why. In other words: 1. Measure something repeatedly, day after day. 2. When you notice an outlier, test possible explanations. In most science, random (= unplanned) variation is bad. In an experiment, for example, it makes the effects of the treatment harder to see. Here it is good.

Here are examples where wait and see paid off for me:

1. Acne and benzoyl peroxide. When I was a graduate student, I started counting the number of pimples on my face every morning. One day the count improved. It was two days after I started using benzoyl peroxide more regularly. Until then, I did not think benzoyl peroxide worked well — I started using it more regularly because I had run out of tetracycline (which turned out not to work).

2. Sleep and breakfast. I changed my breakfast from oatmeal to fruit because a student told me he had lost weight eating foods with high water content (such as fruit). I did not lose weight but my sleep suddenly got worse. I started waking up early every morning instead of half the time. From this I figured out that any breakfast, if eaten early, disturbed my sleep.

3. Sleep and standing (twice). I started to stand a lot to see if it would cause weight loss. It didn’t, but I started to sleep better. Later, I discovered by accident that standing on one leg to exhaustion made me sleep better.

4. Brain function and butter. For years I measured how fast I did arithmetic. One day I was a lot faster than usual. It turned out to be due to butter.

5. Brain function and dental amalgam. My brain function, measured by an arithmetic test, improved over several months. I eventually decided that removal of two mercury-containing fillings was the likely cause.

6. Blood sugar and walking. My fasting blood sugar used to be higher than I would like — in the 90s. (Optimal is low 80s.) Even worse, it seemed to be increasing. (Above 100 is “pre-diabetic.”) One day I discovered it was much lower than expected (in the 80s). The previous day I had walked for an hour, which was unusual. I determined it was indeed cause and effect. If I walked an hour per day, my fasting blood sugar was much better.

This method and examples emphasize the point that different scientific methods are good at different things and we need all of them (in contrast to evidence-based medicine advocates who say some types of evidence are “better” than other types — implying one-dimensional evaluation). One thing we want to do is test cause-effect ideas (X causes Y). This method doesn’t do that at all. Experiments do that well, surveys are better than nothing. Another thing we want to do is assess the generality of our cause-effect ideas. This method doesn’t do that at all. Surveys do that well (it is much easier to survey a wide range of people than do an experiment with a wide range of people), multi-person experiments are better than nothing. A third thing we want to do is come up with cause-effect ideas worth testing. Most experiments are a poor way to do this, surveys are better than nothing. This method is especially good for that.

The possibility of such discoveries is a good reason to self-track. Professional scientists almost never use this method. But you can.