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Self-Tracking: What I’ve Learned

Posted Jun 12 2009 4:20pm

I want to measure, day by day, how well my brain is working. After I saw big fast effects of flaxseed oil, I realized how well my brain works (a) depends on what I eat and (b) can change quickly. Maybe other things besides dietary omega-3 matter. Maybe large amounts of omega-6 make my brain work worse, for example. Another reason for this project is that I’m interested in how to generate ideas, a neglected part of scientific methodology. Maybe this sort of long-term monitoring can generate new ideas about what affects our brains.

So I needed a brain task that I’ll do daily. When I set out to devise a good task, here’s what I already knew:

1. Many numbers, not one. A task that provides many numbers per test (e.g., many latencies) is better than a task that provides only one number (e.g., percent correct). Gathering many numbers per test allows me to look at their distribution and choose an efficient method of combining (i.e., averaging) them into one number. (E.g., harmonic mean, geometric mean, trimmed mean.) Gathering many numbers also allows me to calculate a standard error, which helps identify unusual scores.

2. Graded, not binary. Graded measures (e.g., latencies) are better than binary ones (e.g., right/wrong).

Every experimental psychologist knows this. What none of them know is how to make the task fun. If I’m going to do something every day, it matters a great deal whether I enjoy it or not. It might be the difference between possible and impossible. People enjoy video games, which is a kind of existence proof. Video games have dozens of elements; which matter? Here’s what I figured out by trial and error:

3. Hand-eye coordination. Making difficult movements that involve hand-eye coordination is fun. My bilboquet taught me this. Presumably this tendency originated during the tool-making hobbyist stage of human evolution; it caused people to become better and better at making tools. Ordinary typing involves skilled movement but not hand-eye coordination. This idea has worked. I led me to try one-finger typing (where I look at the keyboard while I type) instead of regular typing. And, indeed, I enjoy the one-finger typing task, whereas I didn’t enjoy the ordinary typing tasks I’ve tried.

4. Detailed problem-by-problem feedback. Right/wrong is the crudest form of feedback; it doesn’t do much. What I find is much more motivating is more graded feedback based on performance on the same problem.

5. Less than 5 minutes. The longer the task the more data, sure, but also the more reluctant I am to do it. Three minutes seems close to ideal: long enough for the task to be a pleasant break but not so long that it seems like a burden.

Experimental psychology is a hundred years old. Small daily tests is an unexplored ecology that might have practical benefits.

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