Personal experiments: for the unusual?

I asked in what kind of world personal experimentation could seem worth it for me yet not already exhausted. Today I’ll look at one potential explanation, popular with commenters last time: I and my friends are weird in some way that causes to benefit more than usual from experimentation. Several of the suggestions below were seconded by commenters.

Robin makes a plausible suggestion in this realm: in general people do quite well by copying the right other people’s behavior in some kind of clever, intuitive, context specific way. Nerds are terrible at this though (either because they fail to copy at the outset, or because they can’t do the social interpretation necessary to correctly generalize). So they have the choice to copy other people badly, or try to reinvent a lot of things from scratch. So experimentation is much more useful for nerds. Coupled with the premise that I’m a nerd, this explains the observations and has some intuitive appeal.

If something like this is true, there seem to me to be traits beyond lack of copying skill that incline nerds toward working such things out from scratch. In general if you are already unusual on many axes, copying others on a particular one is less good, so you will have to figure things out for yourself more. Once you have determined to sleep in the daytime and practice radical honesty, the usual answers about how to improve your mood or attract a partner may not apply as well. Nerds are also more likely to have the quantitative skills to do experiments well. And nerds seem more unsettled by adherence to traditions handed to them without explanation or instructions.

These things might explain enthusiasm for explicit experimentation and innovation, but the reasons experimentation seems worth it didn’t make reference to enthusiasm. Non-nerds may copy one another fine, but there seem to be better things to do than copying. It could also be that experimentation is not worthwhile, and nerds just tend to over-rate it. But fits nicely into a category to be explored later: ‘I’m wrong’.

Another relevant way I and my friends might be weird is that we live so late in history, and in such a rich world. Perhaps it has only recently become cheap enough to track such experimentation usefully. This seems important for the more elaborate data-tracking kinds of experiments. But it seems like you can do a lot with a pen and paper, and maybe a calculator and a coin. Also, as Robin points out, there are more people to copy now, so the ‘experiment little’ path is also easier. Arguably, I say.

Another way I am strange is in being relatively young. Youth clearly makes experimentation more valuable. However I feel like it is valuable enough, and that the gains are soon enough, that I would want to do it if I were similar to myself apart from having thirty years less to live. It could be that older people are unlike me however, in that they have learned a lot more by experimentation when they were young. Is this so? It’s not clear to me.

None of these explanations seem that great. Are there other ways I’m weirdly good at benefitting from experimentation?

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  • Martin355

    I’d be interested in personal experimentation but I don’t know what would be worthwhile to try, or what data to track. Does anyone have any suggestions?

    • Robert Koslover

       Consider living and working in a rural area.  You’d be amazed how much you can learn about the natural world, and how to experience/appreciate it, that isn’t taught in academia (well, unless you already work in agriculture, forestry, farming, fishing, etc.)

    • J O

      Each one of the things on this list are considered radical by at east one person I know.  All seem to help me, and all IMO have enough research that they should at least be given a shot.  Know that I personally may have been helped more than others by fixing the circadian rhythm because I have a history of insomnia.

      -Obeying the food clock. Start with fasting for the 8ish hours you should be sleeping and work your way up to 12.  I fast from 18:00 to 5:00 (I get up early for forex trading).  Check ScienceDaily for some neat articles on this.
      -Not only obeying the circadian rhythm, but managing light levels.  At 18:00 I turn off the lights except night lights, and set my two monitors to be very dim and very red.  I make them blue in the morning.  Monitor setting hotkeys make it nearly effortless, my brothers thinks this is so bizarre, but it’s easy and important for me.

      -Morning exercise, or even just regular exercise at all.  Every day at 12-13 or so I go for  >5km walk (I had to build up to that).  I also work out, but only very lightly (low-weight high reps, 1 exercise each day).

      -Creatine, B12 and D3 supplements.

      -Napping and mindfulness meditation, if you’re able to ignore the surrounding foo foo.  But the research isn’t bad.

      -nback training with Brain Workshop (free program).  Has conflicting research and might not be worth the time, though I seem to feel better if I’ve been doing it.  There is evidence of changes to dopamine receptors, which might explain that.

      -Keeping a diary, jotting down random things.

      -Something others may not suggest: An RSS Feed.  Setting this up made my internet use far more efficient; I can hardly believe the hours I’ve wasted checking and re-checking a site for updates.

  • guest

    It is also possible that “nerds” simply have less social interactions than other people, and thus do not see as much material to copy at all (rather than not being able to copy it).
    Thus, they have to generate their own material through experimentation.
    Then, since they gather equally good (sometimes better) but different ways of living life, it makes them unusual.

    In addition, some people copy others in order to be able to share similar experiences. If two friends live their lives in wildly different ways, it’s harder for them to compare and relate to each other.

  • Faze

    After 33 years of failed but eagerly pursued personal experimentation in education, morality, lifestyle, work and self-expression, I eventually sidled into the one experinent I’d dreaded most of my life: attempting a conventional career, keeping ordinary hours, behaving appropriately, caring about my appearance, and seeking conventional status markers.

    This eventually led to other experiments, including fitness, good nutrition, a conventional relationship, loyalty to my employer, non-radical politics and other research that I had avoided out the fear that such experimentation could explode in my face: turning me into a soulless, incurious, materialist automaton who cared only about money and social position.

    It was a costly experiment in terms of old habits, old self-delusions, and moral self-righteousness. But it led to a comfortable way of life that allows me to pursue a broad range of more focused, controlled and meaningful personal experimentation — mainly because I have access to a far wider spectrum of humanity and social setting than I’d had as an experimenter with social unconventionality.

    In short: most of the experimentation you can conceive from the point of youth and a position outside mainstream society is not worth doing. It’s only when your inside the system, in higher up in the power structure, that experimentation gets interesting.

    • Paul Christiano

      Quite a bit of experimentation runs orthogonal to these axes. 

      For example, though “good nutrition” sure sounds good, it’s not clear exactly what it means. If you want to decide what to eat for breakfast, you need to choose between copying what most people eat or trying to follow some other strategy (e.g. spending effort to try and discover what breakfast foods lead you to feel good throughout the day).

      “Fitness” and “status” sound good too, but it’s not like we are faced with the choice “should I be fit?”. The things we value have many inputs, and the relationships between what you do and what happens is not certain—do you run or lift? exercise ten minutes a day or thirty? etc. You can try and estimate those relationships yourself, or to just do what other people do on the theory that they are behaving basically correctly. The question is: when should you do one, and when you should do another?

      For some changes, like sleeping during the day or practicing radical honesty, there are obvious social costs. You seem to be saying that those social costs are big, and that idealistic young folks may fail to understand just how big. That seems pretty likely, but doesn’t license the conclusion “most of the experimentation you can conceive from the point of youth and a position outside mainstream society is not worth doing.”

      It doesn’t seem like my decision about whether to experiment with sleeping an hour less would be much better informed by being “higher up in the power structure.”

      • Faze

        Fitness experiments: Should I smoke cigarettes? I know they cause cancer, but not for everybody. Maybe I’ll be the one who gets away with it. I’ve been pretty lucky for most of my life. Let’s not quit smoking and see what happens. OR should I exercise or not? Many brilliant and accomplished people throughout history have barely moved from their chairs. Perhaps if I quit smoking and took up running, I’d be exchanging fitness for the greatness I might have achieved by lying in bed and marinating in my thoughts. I think I’ll stay and bed and see if I’m one of those who succeeds that way.

        The higher up you get in the power structure, the higher the stakes and the more interesting the experiments. Sleeping an hour more or less has real consequences when, say, you’re vice president and have to interact with the 120 people in your department as well as your superiors. I’ve been experimenting lately with getting up at 5 every morning and getting into work before everybody else. Here’s what I’ve learned: The 5 am schedule launched me rip-roaring into the morning. I get monster amounts of work done and carry everyone admiringly along with me through to about 3:15. Then the effect starts to dribble off, unless I’m being carried along by the momentum of some really engaging project started earlier in the day. Any lag in the action in mid-afternoon, however, triggers my next experiment: What happens if a highly placed, well regarded executive goes home at 3:30 to nap or practice the piano or play the cats? We’ll see!

      • Paul Christiano

        Yes, some things like smoking and exercising are well understood. Some things, like almost all aspects of nutrition and almost all aspects of what kind of exercise are good, are not. You probably shouldn’t experiment with the things we understand.

        Yes, if your time is worth more, it matters more if you save or waste time. (Though this consideration cuts in favor of experimentation for the young, barring some extra claims, since their failed experiments are cheaper while their knowledge about themselves is equally useful.)

  • One reason for of weirdness would be having a dietary issue like gluten intolerance. If you don’t have it, copying everyone else is a cheap way to get good nutrition. If you do have the intolerance, copying will make you sick and experimentation can help you live longer and happier.

    If you are less jealous than others, then open relationships might be worth exploring. There’s probably far more weird people than we realize, and conditions are ripe for more people being able to try new things.

    • Someonefromtheotherside

       Even if you do not have any major food allergies, copying everyone would be a pretty sorry way to get good nutrition – especially in the US.

  • Michael Vassar

    What if you just don’t believe that in general people do quite well.  They sure don’t seem to to me.

  • Kim Øyhus

    Don’t forget that almost all people are insane enough to believe religions, politics, false authorities, etc.
    Actually doing real experiments in this overwhelming sea of self righteous superstition can be very fruitful, because truth is useful, and truth is generally swamped by the delusions of society.

    In other words: Most people do not have a clue. They just survive by copying other peoples behaviour.

    This also goes for a lot of quantified self stuff. Sure, a clock with a heart monitor is impressive, but it is totally unoriginal. What I would make, is something like a magnetic resonance spectrogram, or an infrared scattering analyser, or chemical diffusion thingy. In other words, get new information, and lots of it, and cheaply.

  • Someonefromtheotherside

    Since people vary both on a genetic and also probably psychological value, some self experimentation will be required to find the optimal exercise regime, diet and also behavioral traits that fits you.

    Nerds may be bad at copying but they may also be more equipped to experiment or have lower inhibition to do things in another way…

  • I think you’re missing the single biggest incentive for you to experiment:

    There are no consequences.

    Oh, you might miss some opportunities, but you live in a society rich enough that you won’t starve to death if one of your experiments turns out to be a lousy idea; and a society tolerant enough to put up with what you’re doing. Plus, as you say, you’re young and so have time to correct mistakes if they don’t work out — and in this society you won’t doom yourself to a life of poverty or social isolation.

    So unless you decide to “experiment” with serial murder or autoerotic asphyxiation, there are no consequences.

    . . . which means, of course, that your experiments will also be fairly meaningless since they don’t involve any sacrifice or genuine choices. Life experiments now have the significance of trying a different flavor shot in your latte.    

    • Paul Christiano

      What? Spending time is a cost, and saving time is a gain. If you think that things like being more or less healthy, having more or less time, or having more or less fun aren’t consequences, then I agree that most of our experiments are consequence-free (as are most of our activities). If you think that the only way to give an activity meaning is for it to carry a risk of acute suffering or death, then you were indeed born in the wrong time.

      • Exactly! The consequences are what we might call “First World Consequences” — not having as much fun as you might. Not starvation, ostracism, disease, or death.

  • Arch1

    I suspect that most people in the world would net benefit from increased personal experimentation, and that the primary reason people don’t do it very much / very systematically is that it requires discipline, an active, inquiring, fairly un-muddled mind, a feeling for the value of the scientific method (whether named or not), a willingness to change, and I’m sure other non-universal qualities as well.

    Most people don’t seem to have these attributes to the necessary degree.

  • Eric Hammer

    I think you might be on to something with the affluence angle. Historically* the rich and very poor were usually the weird ones, with the middling classes being very conservative in behaviors. Presumably the very poor were more or less crazy, or were ostracized because of their odd behaviors, while the rich could afford to be stranger because of their wealth and influence, being in part less dependent on a social net and themselves being trend setters. If today we have many more people who are less reliant on social relationships to support ourselves, due to increased anonymous exchange in the market, we can probably afford to experiment more. Greater over all wealth also probably means there are more people who experiment the way we do, creating social gains. (I am thinking of cities and the like where it is much easier to find clubs for like minded weirdos.) 

    * I am thinking of Victorian Era Europe and Republican/Imperial Rome in particular, but I think in general it was usually the rich and powerful who were seen as becoming decadent and strange over all time periods.

  • Magnus

    what about with altered states of mind? I would like to recommend intense vipassana, or insight meditation to anybody who wants to experiment with what reality is. Ayahuasca is the other one. If you already have an opinion on what mediation or psychedelics like ayahuasca can do but they are not for you, then you are leaving a rather large stone unturned in your radical honesty. 

  • I recently had a reminder of something I’d wondered about before ( ), the dangers of personal experimentation.

    An old family friend, now in his 90s and still living on his own, recently collapsed leaving a restaurant and was taken to the hospital where he was discovered to be in pretty bad shape – confused, uncooperative, blood in his urine, and extremely frail, thin, & malnourished. His house is apparently in such bad shape that he refuses to let anyone go in it, and refuses to make a will or a living will etc.

    At dinner, we were discussing him and someone mentioned that he had long followed all sorts of fad diets and supplements (although I doubt they helped much, since his younger brother is still around), and they blamed his latest diet – ‘calorie something or other’ ‘Caloric restriction?’ ‘Yeah, that sounds right.’ ‘But he usually eats out at restaurants, how could he be following the absurdly restrictive CRON diet or be getting anywhere near enough nutrition on the 1500 calories or whatever a day?’ ‘I don’t know.’

    So it sounds to me like he heard about CR (fine), decided to follow it (not so fine given how old he is), and did so completely wrong. Given the ‘compression of morbidity’ in the very elderly, it’s very possible that he won’t live out the year and the proximate cause would seem to be due to CR. Could he have done better?

    Maybe if he had started CR 60 years ago when he was like 32, he would’ve done so properly and not wound up starving himself; intelligence declines drastically with age, after all. But wouldn’t you need intelligence to know when you are either now dangerously gullible or too incompetent to correctly implement an otherwise good idea?

  • And nerds seem more unsettled by adherence to traditions handed to them without explanation or instructions.

    I would be interested to know which of the two has a bigger effect.

  • John Maxwell IV

    “Robin makes a plausible suggestion in this realm: in general people do quite well by copying the right other people’s behavior in some kind of clever, intuitive, context specific way. Nerds are terrible at this though (either because they fail to copy at the outset, or because they can’t do the social interpretation necessary to correctly generalize). So they have the choice to copy other people badly, or try to reinvent a lot of things from scratch. So experimentation is much more useful for nerds. Coupled with the premise that I’m a nerd, this explains the observations and has some intuitive appeal.”

    Well, nerds are typically more successful in life than regular folks.  (When’s the last time you saw a nerd working a dead-end job, having a child out of wedlock, or saddled by excessive credit card debt?)  I don’t think “regular” (i.e. stupid/incurious) folks are much worth copying (except when trying to blend in with them.  Dumbing yourself down in real time for conversation with non-nerds is a skill that takes practice.)

    I think experimentation is worthwhile because human cultural change is now moving much slower than human technological change.  (“The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”)  So it makes sense that there would be ways to exploit technology (e.g. BeeMinder) that had not become widespread yet (since cultural change is slow).  Additionally, if one grants that human cultural change is generally a positive force, it makes sense that one could benefit from being on the forefront of such change and scooping up benefits before they become widespread (e.g. radical honesty).  A more conservative strategy for adopting new memes might make sense if you think many new memes might have hidden downsides that will only become apparent through extended use.

    Technology doesn’t just provide new strategy ideas.  It also changes which strategies work.  The Pomodoro Technique wouldn’t work well for farmers, but it works great for some knowledge workers.  Because the world is changing fast, the optimal strategies are changing fast too.

    A third factor is the internet.  If it weren’t for the internet, most of the experiment ideas you had would probably be pretty lame.  But the internet lets people share experiments that have proven useful to them, which are more likely to be good, and might inspire similar higher-caliber experiments for you to try yourself.

  • Brittany Gardner

    Experimentation is least costly when young, since youth tends to excuse many mistakes. However, youth expires fast, so it seems to me that too much time spent experimenting after a certain age quickly becomes too expensive. Working hard in youth to achieve an affluent position might be the most effective way to enjoy the effects of experimentation the longest, since other than youth, wealth is about the only other thing that excuses mistakes.

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