The Frontal Cortex


Gary Wolf has a fascinating and really well written article in the Times Magazine on the rise of the “quantified self,” or all those people who rely on microsensors to measure discrete aspects of their lives, from walking speed to emotional mood:

Millions of us track ourselves all the time. We step on a scale and record our weight. We balance a checkbook. We count calories. But when the familiar pen-and-paper methods of self-analysis are enhanced by sensors that monitor our behavior automatically, the process of self-tracking becomes both more alluring and more meaningful. Automated sensors do more than give us facts; they also remind us that our ordinary behavior contains obscure quantitative signals that can be used to inform our behavior, once we learn to read them.

Here’s a typical example of a life improvement reinforced by self-tracking:

After surgery for a back problem, [Sophie] Barbier had trouble sleeping. On CureTogether, a self-tracking health site, she learned about tryptophan, a common amino acid available as a dietary supplement. She took the tryptophan, and her insomnia went away. Her concentration scores also improved. She stopped taking tryptophan and continued to sleep well, but her ability to concentrate deteriorated. Barbier ran the test again, and again the graph was clear: tryptophan significantly increased her focus. She had started by looking for a cure for insomnia and discovered a way to fine-tune her brain.

On the one hand, this is a valiant example of self-experimentation, a demonstration of the potential of measuring and then measuring again. Kudos to Sophie for finding a way to improve herself. But I think it also exposes some of the inherent limitations of the approach. One of the main problems facing self-experimenters is the powerful role of expectations in shaping performance. If we think something is going to work, then it probably will work, at least for a little while.

Look, for example, at this witty little experiment. Baba Shiv, a neuroeconomist at Stanford, supplied a group of people with Sobe Adrenaline Rush, an “energy” drink that was supposed to make them feel more alert and energetic. (The drink contained a potent brew of sugar and caffeine which, the bottle promised, would impart “superior functionality”). Some participants paid full price for the drinks, while others were offered a discount. The participants were then asked to solve a series of word puzzles. Shiv found that people who paid discounted prices consistently solved about thirty percent fewer puzzles than the people who paid full price for the drinks. The subjects were convinced that the stuff on sale was much less potent, even though all the drinks were identical.

Studies like this demonstrate the necessity of blind controls. The brain is a gullible machine, which is why the very act of believing that tryptophan might work makes it much more likely to have an effect, at least at first. (In an ideal world, Barbier should have devised a placebo condition and then measured the difference in her ability to concentrate.) That’s why I’m a teeny bit suspicious of clear-cut results that come from tested hypotheses, especially when the results contradict the scientific literature. The very act of speculating about a causal relationship – say, for instance, the link between a pill and the ability to concentrate – warps the data, biasing our mind in a million little ways.

My own favorite form of self-experimentation has to do with wine. It’s pretty clear that we expect more expensive wines to taste better. (This expectation is visible in an fMRI machine.) But it’s also clear that, at least for amateurs, this expectation is mostly false: when you give people bottles of wine without any price information, there is no correlation between the cost of the wine and its subjective ratings. A $8 bottle is just as enjoyable as an $80 one.

Every few months, I conduct a blind taste test. (In general, I think the most useful forms of self-tracking will be the tracking of our innate biases.) I trek to Costco and my local wine store and pick up several bottles at various price points. The wines are poured into cheap decanters. And then I taste the wines over the course of a lazy afternoon, being sure to eat lots of crackers in between. I smell, swirl, sip and swallow. (I like my wine too much to spit it out.) I’m no Robert Parker, but I take a few notes and render my judgement. What have I discovered? Mostly I’ve learned that my ratings are woefully inconsistent. The same $18 pinot that I loved last year might get low marks at a later date. A Tuscan blend that seemed so generic now seems like it would be a perfect foil for pasta with tomatoes. In other words, when it comes to wine I have no idea what I’m talking about.

As a result, I now spend a little less time in the wine store. Instead of trying to find the house wine that will maximize my utility, I ask for advice and tend to buy the bottle with the most interesting backstory. I seek out obscure varietals and pretty labels and lower price points. The act of measuring my wine preferences, in other words, has taught me that my preferences aren’t worth very much.

I’ve also started spending more time thinking about beer, as I’ve got a hunch that my beer preferences will be more consistent. I haven’t done any controlled trials yet, and I’m not sure I want to, but I’m pretty convinced that I’ve found a perfect pale ale. Is this preference an illusion? Probably a little. But I don’t really care. This beer tastes really good. Sometimes, it’s more fun not measuring anything.


  1. #1 Dan
    May 3, 2010

    You’ve found a perfect pale ale and you aren’t sharing?

  2. #2 steve
    May 3, 2010

    It can at times be more fun not measuring anything, though at times it’s really good fun and very helpful to measure.

    I often try to effect myself, putting extra intelligence or wakefulness into my cup of tea or energy into my breakfast.

    Does this work? Dunno, really should have measured it =]

  3. #3 Joey Glickman
    May 3, 2010

    I’ve always thought that you could take this post a few extremes further.

    I might be too much of a socialist for your blog, but please do me the honor of hearing me out… At least for a bit.

    I think that the logical implication of social status games is that they should be avoided, or even discouraged. Especially when the free-market messes up and the government bails it out.

    Paula B. Voos, Economist, Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations: (March 31st, 2009)

    “Since 1989, 59 percent of all the income growth in the United States has accrued to the upper one percent of households and about 36 percent went to the upper one-tenth of that upper one percent.”

    Woah. I always thought that the “trickle-down theory” worked better than that…

    It gets worse. Voos even argues that this vast wealth difference precipitated the recession.

    “Productivity kept climbing, but not wages. Incomes stagnated for typical American families, many of whom were forced to go into excessive debt just to meet ordinary needs such as adequate housing in states where housing prices had soared. Some took on inappropriate subprime mortgages because low “teaser rates” were the only way they could afford monthly payments. Credit card debt mushroomed.

    Simultaneously, there was an explosion of speculation as the “Greed is Good” generation put its ill-gotten gains into various investments, including many backed by this very debt – bonds securitized by shaky mortgages. And that, along with direct speculation in various new unregulated investment markets, created a bubble that inevitably burst, precipitating the current recession.”

    Though I think your post was much more light-hearted than Voos’ dismal economic claims, I think they are very related. If, as you have written before, our nation is on a “hedonistic treadmill,” perhaps we find a way to get off.

    Before our knees give out for good.

  4. #4 Michael F. Martin
    May 3, 2010

    Yes, placebo effects are a problem for self-experimenters.

    There is another psychological facet of self-tracking, however, that I find interesting. The stream of data we generate through self-tracking and self-experimentation can provide the kind of experience Csikszentmihalyi described as “flow.” I have tried for years to lose weight through various combinations of diet and exercise. About a month ago, I downloaded and iPhone app called “LoseIt!” and started tracking my daily calories and exercise. By setting daily goals that are challenging but not frustrating, and providing me with daily feedback on both my calorie intake and weight loss, I’ve started the first sustained downward trend I’ve seen in many years.

    The app seems to be very successful for many others.

  5. #5 David
    May 3, 2010

    Is it Sierra Nevada pale ale?

  6. #6 Tony P
    May 3, 2010

    Wine has a lot to do with what you combine it with. E.g. Pinot Grigio works for any salty dish.

  7. #7 Eli
    May 3, 2010

    I’m going to echo the others: what’s the beer?

  8. #8 Sophie Barbier
    May 3, 2010

    Yes, placebo/expectancy effects do interfere with “actual” results. But let’s not forget that placebos sometimes have a very real effect. The expectancy of drinking a caffeinated beverage (in reality, a non-caffeinated placebo) will actually release dopamine in the brain. There are many examples of this. And if a placebo “cures” your symptoms – should it matter whether it is a glucose pill or an SSRI?

    In any case, I think the point of data tracking is not self-experimentation, but self-tracking – and the surprises you may find!

  9. #9 Andy
    May 3, 2010

    I disagree. in the instance of your blind wine tasting for example I think what is lacking is moderated learning steps. In other words you came about enjoying wine the wrong way. To any learning for the knowledge to be consistent, the learning has to be done in steps. Thus, perhaps you first should spend time on tasting the difference between different grapes, then regions and grapes, and from there you move in steps toward teaching your pallet. If steps are skipped then as Charles Pierce wrote we fill the gap with whatever we can to transition from uncertainty to belief. I apologize for any typos,as i am typing this on my phone.

  10. #10 Andy
    May 3, 2010

    Ps: Self tracking is part being active in knowing oneself better and being more involved in one’s own physical and mental awearness. Of course we humans are not always dilligent and are not taught proper” scientific” examination nor are we willing to learn formal logic. An instance of cause and effect is not definite.

  11. #11 Howard
    May 4, 2010

    Brew masters try to make each batch of a style of beer taste as much like the previous batch as possible given the variations in the raw materials. And a skilled brew master uses taste buds, intuition, and chemistry to achieve the desired result. Wine makers on the other hand start with a more complex and changeable starting material. Andy has a point about blind tasting of wine before you have an appreciation of what the parameters each grape or style are. Also it is not surprising that your head to head comparisons change over time. It may be that it is not you who is inconsistent but that each wine is a living and constantly changing substance in the barrel and in the bottle. That 2009 Zinfandel from your favorite wine maker will not taste the same in 2011. Maybe better or worse tasting, it depends on both you and the wine.

  12. #12 Gopherus Agassizii
    May 4, 2010

    I see no need to monitor my daily activities. People who do this would strike me as self-centered to a fault.

    One of the issues that seems to be getting glossed over with the wine thing is that our taste buds do not all work with the same sophistication or sensitivity. So not knowing the differences among wines is not too surprising, since most people probably fall into the same category.

  13. #13 Rachael
    May 4, 2010

    I agree with you about the wine – I have taken several courses (so I should know what I am talking about) but have ended up the same way as you – I now pick by the labels (Arrogant Frog was one of the last ones I bought) because the way my tastes for wine change, it is as good a method as any (and I get a laugh out of it BEFORE I start drinking)!

    In terms of the price for bottles – we live in Singapore and so there is a great amount of tax whacked in there that should have no bearing on the wine really… 🙂

  14. #14 Amber
    May 4, 2010

    I definitely agree with you about wine. Just because Wine Spectator says a bottle of whatever is outstanding doesn’t mean you or I will necessarily know the difference. Taste is subject to so many things: mood, memory, experience. What seems delicious one day may be nothing special a month later. So, I practice the is-it-an-interesting-label method of choosing wine–and I don’t track calories or pounds.

  15. #15 Mark
    May 4, 2010

    What’s your perfect pale? And, have you tried Summit’s new India Rye Ale? Wow.

  16. #16 Kevin Vogelsang
    May 4, 2010

    Personally, I’d love to have everything measured to better stay on top of things. Our attention is stretched so thin it’s hard for us to realize what exactly is causing us our problems.

  17. #17 Alan
    May 4, 2010

    When it comes to testing different wines, sometimes seemingly arbitrary criteria can help with enjoyment. For example, the less that is printed on the label (and in English), the more I tend to enjoy the wine. Another set of criteria concern geography of origin. There are a lot of deservedly highly rated Tuscan wines out there. But what if you temporarily limit yourself to buying Italian wines, say, only from south of Rome? The result is you’re going to encounter some pleasantly different tastes. And I think that ultimately goes to the point here. The experience of perfection can be approached from all different kinds of angles. Indeed, how would one meaningfully quantify, from high to low, different tastes, when those tastes are a function of changing variables such as biochemistry, mood, social context, weather, etc.?

  18. #18 Thomas
    May 5, 2010

    The idea of comparing beer preferences to wine preferences is pretty interesting. Just yesterday I was reading a bit about the history of craft beers and how their complexity is just as detailed as that of wine.

    So, seriously. Do this with craft beers. Pale ales?
    Lagunitas, Magic Hat, Sierra Nevada, what else?

  19. #19 Dave Wyman
    May 5, 2010

    “I downloaded and iPhone app called “LoseIt!” and started tracking my daily calories and exercise.”

    I’ve kept an exercise chart/weight for years, which I began after I lost about 16 pounds through a combination of what I thought was dieting and exercise. My weight, since I started that chart in 2001, has been remarkably stable.

    I’ve discovered my weight has little to do with the amount of exercise I perform, and apparently much to do with my mood (amount of stress or other strong emotions) and my ability to abstain from sugar.

  20. #20 Roger Evans
    May 5, 2010

    This interesting post made me think of the issue in terms of musical performances, in which you often get a larger crowd for charging more:

  21. #21 woodtrain72
    May 7, 2010

    Many years ago I worked in a brewery. We were the subjects of blind taste testing. None of us, experienced college age beer drinkers, could identify what beer we were drinking within common classes [e.g. beer and ale are distinctly different]. What determined taste was: the temperature at which the beer was served, the cleanliness of the glass and the lines from the keg to the spout and the way the beer was poured. And if we were told we were drinking a premium beer,whether we were or not –we believed it.

  22. #22 Gary Wolf
    May 14, 2010

    Thanks for this interesting discussion. One thing worth thinking about is that Sophie B., whose story is discussed here, did not know she was doing a concentration experiment. Therefore, in the first phase, placebo effects are unlikely to have been the cause of her change in concentration.


  23. #23 Matthew Cornell
    July 26, 2010

    I think this work is important, and Gary’s piece was seminal. These ideas generalize into a wider life-as-experiment perspective, and I’d like to link to my response and outline of how it all might fit together here: The Experiment-Driven Life ( Great stuff!

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