Self-knowledge was obtained through introspection and reflection; that is, through words. But there has long been a parallel method of understanding ourselves. Athletes are among the pioneers: With their increasingly precise and scientific training regimens, serious competitors now commonly load databases not only with their practice results but also with stats on the biological precursors of optimum performance: heart rate, diet, metabolism, and dozens of other factors.
Anywhere the goal is explicit—run faster, weigh less—the ability to plot progress is too powerful to ignore. But the newest tools open possibilities for personal tracking in areas of life that had always seemed inaccessible to quantitative methods. Diarists often chronicle their moods, creating a paper trail that provides a sense of mastery over fleeting emotions. There is a problem, however, with this sort of old-fashioned journal-keeping: You record your mood only when you're in the mood to do so, which introduces a bias.
If you impose a regular schedule, noting your feelings at the same time every day, you face the issue that mood varies predictably with time of day and regular cycles of activity. It might seem that we're simply incapable of reliably tracking our own subjective states, but social scientists solved this problem years ago: Just randomize the time of inquiry. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Reed Larson reported early results using such methods back in , launching a productive line of research in psychology. At the time, of course, this was work for professionals with programmed watches.
It wasn't clear how you would direct a random inquiry to yourself. With today's technology, such things are now trivial. There is open source software for random experience sampling. This feature is already embedded in tools like Happy Factor , a Facebook app that randomly pings you with a text message, to which you respond with a number indicating your happiness level.
There are protocols for measuring mental fitness that take less than five minutes to complete and provide a baseline for experiments on your brain's agility. The Web site CureTogether lets users log an enormous range of conditions, symptoms, and feelings. Modern self-tracking systems can measure our bodies, our minds, and our movements. But can they measure our narcissism?
The question comes up often enough to require an answer. My original impulse, after I'd heard it three or four times, was to investigate it in the spirit of the self-tracking movement—that is, with a number. There is a well-validated psychological test for measuring narcissism that takes only a few minutes to fill out. I administered it to three dozen self-trackers, and the mean score was 0. But of course, that's not a real answer, because when people ask whether self-tracking is narcissistic, they're not wondering about clinical narcissism.
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They're wondering about selfishness, narrowness, a retreat from social engagement and social generosity into an egotistical world of self. Oddly, though, self-tracking culture is not particularly individualistic. In fact, there is a strong tendency among self-trackers to share data and collaborate on new ways of using it.
People monitoring their diet using Tweet What You Eat! The most ambitious sites are aggregating personal data for patient-driven drug trials and medical research. Self-trackers seem eager to contribute to our knowledge about human life. The world is full of potential experiments: people experiencing some change in their lives, going on or off a diet, kicking an old habit, making a vow or a promise, going on vacation, switching from incandescent to fluorescent lighting, getting into a fight.
An Interview with Gary Wolf on the Quantified Self
These are potential experiments, not real experiments, because typically no data is collected and no hypotheses are formed. But with the abundance of self-tracking tools now on offer, everyday changes can become the material of careful study. When magnifying lenses were invented, they were aimed at the cosmos. But almost immediately we turned them around and aimed them at ourselves.
The telescope became a microscope. We discovered blood cells.
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We discovered spermatozoa. We discovered the universe of microorganisms inside ourselves. The accessible tools of self-tracking and numerical analysis offer a new kind of microscope with which to find patterns in the smallest unit of sociological analysis, the individual human. But the notion of a personal microscope isn't quite right, because insight will come not just from our own numbers but from combining them with the findings of others.
Really, what we're building is what climate scientist Jesse Ausubel calls a macroscope. The basic idea of a macroscope is to link myriad bits of natural data into a larger, readable pattern. This means computers on one side and distributed data-gathering on the other. If you want to see the climate, you gather your data with hyperlocal weather stations maintained by amateurs. Why not use an accelerometer, which can directly measure changes in speed and direction?
Accelerometers had long been used in industry and cost several hundred dollars each. Then accelerometers were developed to trigger the air bags in cars. Massive purchases in the automotive industry drove the cost down. The size and power demands shrank, too. Suddenly, it seemed less crazy to put an accelerometer on your body. So he tried to invent one. He put accelerometers into a molded plastic insert. The insert fit into a shoe, and data were transmitted wirelessly to a sports watch.
But there was a problem. Some method — a formula or algorithm — is needed to translate the data into the information you want, and the method must work for almost everybody under a wide range of conditions: stopping and starting, jumping over a curb, limping because of an injury. Thanks to faster computers and clever mathematical techniques, Fyfe and other inventors are turning messy data from cheap sensors into meaningful information.
The Fitbit tracker is two inches long, half an inch wide and shaped like a thick paperclip. It tracks movement, and if you wear it in a little elastic wristband at night, it can also track your hours of sleep. You are not completely still when sleeping. Park and his partner, Eric Friedman, first showed their prototype at a San Francisco business conference in the summer of Last winter they shipped their first devices.
At nearly the same time, Philips, the consumer electronics company, began selling its own tiny accelerometer-based self-tracker, called DirectLife, which, like the Fitbit, is meant to be carried on the body at all times. Zeo, a company based in Newton, Mass.
A low-power data-transmission protocol they invented is in new blood-pressure cuffs, glucose monitors, blood-oxygenation sensors, weight scales and sleep monitors, all of which are aimed at the consumer market. Web entrepreneurs like to talk about democratizing communication. At the center of this personal laboratory is the mobile phone.
During the years that personal-data systems were making their rapid technical progress, many people started entering small reports about their lives into a phone. Sharing became the term for the quick post to a social network: a status update to Facebook , a reading list on Goodreads , a location on Dopplr , Web tags to Delicious , songs to Last. You might not always have something to say, but you always have a number to report. View all New York Times newsletters.
This is how the odd habits of the ultrageek who tracks everything have come to seem almost normal. An elaborate setup is no longer necessary, because the phone already envelops us in a cloud of computing. We entrust all kinds of things to the cloud: our mail and our family photographs; the places we go and the list of people we call on the phone. When Jeff Clavier, the founder of SoftTech VC, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm, invested in a small financial company called Mint now part of Intuit , he was warned that ordinary people were unlikely to trust their bank passwords and credit -card details to the cloud.
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After surgery for a back problem, 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.
It is tempting to dismiss reports of such experiments as trivial anecdotes, or the placebo effect. Second, she changed the conditions several times. Every switch is a test of her original theory. Roberts told me about his own method of measuring mental changes, a quick test he programmed on his computer that involves 32 easy arithmetic problems.
The test takes about three minutes, and he has found that it can detect small changes in cognitive performance. He has used his self-tracking system to adjust his diet, learning that three tablespoons daily of flaxseed oil reliably decreases the amount of time it takes him to do math. Consuming a lot of butter also seems to have a good effect. Their validity may be narrow, but it is beautifully relevant.
Generally, when we try to change, we simply thrash about: we improvise, guess, forget our results or change the conditions without even noticing the results. Errors are possible in self-tracking and self-experiment, of course. It is easy to mistake a transient effect for a permanent one, or miss some hidden factor that is influencing your data and confounding your conclusions.
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But once you start gathering data, recording the dates, toggling the conditions back and forth while keeping careful records of the outcome, you gain a tremendous advantage over the normal human practice of making no valid effort whatsoever. I recently received an e-mail message from a year-old filmmaker named Toli Galanis, who keeps track of about 50 different streams of personal data, including activities, health, films watched and books read, the friends he talks with and the topics they discuss. While Galanis acknowledged that he gets pleasure from gathering data and organizing it intelligently, it was a different aspect of his report that caught my attention.
The idea that our mental life is affected by hidden causes is a mainstay of psychology. Facility in managing the flow of thought and emotion is a sign of happiness and good adjustment.
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