My Body, My Laboratory

Portrayed as lunatics in comic books, scientists who experiment on themselves have long pushed the boundaries of human knowledge. And now, through the Internet, their method is becoming mainstream

  • Photograph by Jim Naughten for TIME

    Kevin Warwick implants chips into his own arm

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    Today's lengthy ethical approval protocol is designed to prevent such disasters, but Warwick admits that no process is fail-safe. "So many people raise so many concerns that you have to put the blinkers on at a certain point and just go for it," he says. One of Warwick's students, Ian Harrison, did just that. He had small magnets implanted in his fingertips in 2009. A sonar device similar to the one Warwick used was then attached to an electromagnetic coil that made the magnets vibrate depending on an object's distance from Harrison's hand — an experiment with obvious implications for assisting the blind. To implant the magnets, Harrison hired a body-modification artist in Britain who specializes in decorative scarification. Harrison has grown attached to the magnets and has yet to take them out, a delay that almost certainly would not have been allowed if a paid member of the public had been used for the experiment. "My friends think it's really cool," he says.

    Going Viral

    Cool is as good a description as any for the Quantified Self phenomenon, a grass-roots movement brought together by the Internet. The guru of the field is Roberts of Tsinghua University. As a graduate student in the 1970s, he decided that the best way to improve as an experimentalist was to run multiple simultaneous trials on himself. In the past 30 years, he has tracked his sleeping patterns, his response to acne remedies, the effect of his diet on his mental arithmetic and much more.

    Roberts argues that tracking allows him to tinker with dozens of studies in a year or two, something that can yield real data — even if it's at the expense of glory. "Some self-experimenters are spared the stigma of their research being cheap and straightforward because it is noble," he says. "But my work wasn't noble at all."

    Still, don't underestimate selfishness. Roberts points to Richard Bernstein, an engineer with diabetes who in 1969 developed a tool for glucose self-monitoring that led him to discover that many small, self-regulated doses of insulin spread over the day maintained better blood-sugar levels than one large daily dose. As more people begin to document their self-help projects, their combined efforts could yield other such impressive breakthroughs.

    Denis Harscoat, co-organizer of the Quantified Self group in London, agrees. Workers are more productive if they complete regular, small tasks rather than an occasional large project; the same is true of do-it-yourself science, he says. At the meetings Harscoat convenes, members discuss everything from monitoring their blood pressure to which behaviors best facilitate writing a play. "You might think we are a bunch of data-crunching geeks," he says, "but it's good to track."

    And track the Quantified Selfers do, often aided by new products designed for them: Zeo headbands, said to monitor sleep phases; Nike plus, shoes with a distance, speed and time sensor embedded in them; Asthmapolis, which records the location, time and date of each breath so asthmatics can monitor their attacks. Every bit of data is shared in meetings so it can be considered in the aggregate.

    At some point, to be sure, quantifying leads to overload — to paralysis by analysis. Harscoat says meetings can turn into confessionals for those who have lost touch with reality. "We tell people not to track more than two or three things," he says.

    That may help, but self-experimentation undoubtedly attracts oddballs and obsessives. Warwick, for example, says his next planned experiment may involve implanting electrodes deep into his brain. That procedure scares even him: he plans to wait until he's 60 because he isn't ready to say goodbye to his wife and family. Still, he says, the experiment "will be fascinating, whatever happens."

    That is what draws those who experiment on themselves to the edge — a restless curiosity coupled with the possibility of doing real good. We should be grateful that there have been such folks in the past and hopeful that there will be some in the future. Just not too many, and not all at once, please.

    This article originally appeared in the Feb. 28, 2011 issue of TIME.

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