Overweening Generalist

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Self-Experimentation: Notes and a Few Colorful Examples

A quasi-hallowed, if underestimated and mis-appreciated history attends those investigators who used themselves as subjects. Perhaps the most famous - or most-oft-cited - work on the subject focuses on intrepid medical self-experimenters: Lawrence K. Altman's gripping Who Goes First?: The Story of Self-Experimentation in Medicine

I've found my readings over the past 30 years marked by sudden tales of self-experimentation, and a 900 pager has yet to be done, or at least I've yet to see some compendium on the subject.

What strikes me is the underappreciated nature of the methodology, and I hope to tackle the obvious seeming "problem" of various "biases" usually called into account by those who assert that the double-blind, placebo (if the study can have one) controlled study is the only valid mode of investigation.

Recent years have seen a resurgence in self-experimentation at the level of Psychology, and there's no better spokesman than Seth Roberts, but I'll get to him later. First: a few of my favorite self-experimenters.

Sir Humphry Davy
Let's return to those profoundly painful years of surgery in the late 18th century, pre-anaesthesia. As the retired professor of Marine Biology Trevor Norton puts it, it went something like this:

1. Site the operating room out of earshot of other patients.
2. Be excessively solicitous over the distress caused to the poor surgeon.
3. Strap the patient down securely.
4. Have the patient bite down on the surgeon's walking stick.
5. Slice and saw at speed.
-p.24, Smoking Ears and Screaming Teeth: A Celebration of Scientific Eccentricity and Self-Experimentation, by Norton.

Around the beginning of the 19th century, some medics volunteered to sniff or inhale one or another of the newly discovered gasses. Oxygen, carbon dioxide, and even carbon monoxide were thought to be therapeutic to inhale. Who knows? Maybe these new gasses are miracle cures?
                                      Sir Humphry Davy: fearless chemist, got his friends 
                                      high on laughing gas, sold science as a good idea

Humphry Davy (1778-1829) was brilliant, a good communicator, and a bit of a showman. He gave himself credit for "discovering" Michael Faraday. (Davy died of congenital heart disease at age 50, after writing very popular essays on possible alien life and science and philosophy.) And it seems, Davy was fearless to the point of daftness. (Because he knew heart disease stalked his family? "I'm gonna die early I might as well be a hero?") The guy would try anything on himself, into himself, noting the results, upping the dosage, almost dying, dialing it back a bit, taking notes. His colleagues were relieved to see him show up the next morning, one noting that Davy risked his life, "as if he had two or three others in reserve, on which he could fall back in case of necessity."

Quickly, around the age of 21, Davy began to assume the much-ballyhooed gas therapy was overhyped. He had tried them all himself, finding carbon monoxide particularly exhausting. It had him "sinking into annihilation, and had just enough power to drop the mouthpiece from my unclosed lips...There is every reason to believe, that if I had taken four or five inhalations instead of three, they would have destroyed life immediately." He quickly breathed in some oxygen, and went on, unafraid. A week later he inhaled some solvent that seared his epiglottis and had him choking, but he made sure he kept measuring his pulse all the while. All in the name of Science!

A colorful character who invented the miner's safety lamp, Davy became something of a celebrity-scientist in his time (if you can imagine such a thing when the only mass media were books and newspapers), and helped convince the Ruling Class that they ought to invest heavily in science, because it's the ultimate tool for the production of wealth.

In the weirdness of time, a new gas came along that was creating a bit of a stir. Davy was skeptical - he'd had some very close-calls with gasses - but had to give it a whirl. This stuff was called nitrous oxide. He tried it, and found that it was good. He upped the doses every day, trying this stuff four or five times per day for a week. The verdict from Davy on what we now commonly call "laughing gas": "highly pleasurable... thrilling...I lost all connection with external things: I existed in a world of newly connected and newly modified ideas. I theorized, I imagined, I made discoveries." 

Early Victorian hippie!

Davy was so wildly enthusiastic he turned on his pals the poets Southey and Coleridge, and a guy who was into thesauruses named Roget. They loved it. Soon the cognoscenti and well-off made haste to the Pneumatic Institute at Bristol. (Where have we heard this story before?)

Here's a horrible irony before I move on to another self-experimenter: Davy soon after suffered from pain from his wisdom teeth. Naturally, he grabbed for the wonder-gas. It worked. He wrote that Nitrous "appears capable of destroying physical pain, it may probably be used with advantage during surgical operations." Oddly, no one urged this on, and surgeries were done without Nitrous for another 40 years! I can't tell you why this happened - I can't find a definitive answer - and this story of prolonged pain in surgery gets even worse.

Around the same time that Davy was experimenting in England, a Japanese surgeon named Seishu Hanaoka (1760-1835) was learning surgery from European books, but he'd turned to Chinese medicine in an attempt to find a solution to the Extreme Pain Problem. He experimented on animals for 20 years with plant extracts that might dull pain and he thought he'd finally hit on the right solution, so he gave it to his wife and she went blind. (Not self-experimentation, aye, but the history of this stuff is also rife with offspring, spouses, and other family members who "volunteered to go first.") Seishu was undeterred and finally hit on a potion of muscle relaxers, sedatives, and analgesics. In 1804 he removed a tumor from a woman relatively painlessly. He then went on to do another 150 operations with this potion, but Japan's insularity toward the rest of the world made Seishu's anaesthesia a secret to the West. The Internet makes this kind of story impossible for our times, doesn't it?
(These anecdotes and more: see Trevor Norton's book, ibid, pp.22-43, "Sniff It and See." Norton's a wonderful writer, and funny!)

                                 Nikola Tesla in his Colorado Springs lab. This is 
                                    apparently not as "shocking" as it looks!

Stubbins Ffirth
I know his name looks like something out of Dickens, but he was oh-so real, and was determined, in early 1800s Philadelphia, to prove that the periodic breakouts of the vicious yellow fever were not contagious. He went to garish lengths to show his hypothesis was sound, in an effort to get his MD. He submitted his copious data eventually and was awarded the degree. Here are some of the things he did to support his idea:

Because the disease was rampant in the summer months but died off in the cold winter, only to return when the warm weather returned, Ffirth reasoned that warm weather overly-excited people, and yellow fever was caused by the stimulation of heat, food and noise. People just needed to calm down! Meanwhile, everyone else believed yellow fever was contagious. To prove it wasn't, Ffirth watched a patient vomit hot black mucus-laden coffee-grind-looking bile, and he filled his cup with some and drank it down. He didn't get sick.

Then Ffirth kept a dog in a room and fed it bread soaked in a patient's yellow-fever vomit. The dog ate it and seemed to like it, never once getting ill. Ffirth - a thorough medical student, this one - made an incision in his forearm and poured more yellow-fever vomit into his wound. Nothing. Maybe some inflammation, which subsided. He made a deeper cut and poured some more in. Still in the pink. He poured fever-vomit into his eyes. (I'm not making this up: see Alex Boese's book Elephants on Acid and Other Bizarre Experiments, pp.195-198) Ffirth heated some vomit on a skillet and inhaled the fumes, to no ill effect. He then created a whole room of yellow-fever-vomit sauna-fumes, basked in the vapors, and felt a headache, "some nausea," and perspired a lot, but it didn't last, and he probably skipped home to a good night's sleep.

He put yellow-fever vomit into pills and took them. He drank glasses of the stuff mixed with water, saying "the taste was slightly acid." He realized he'd become used to the black vomit of deathly sick folk, and even kinda liked it! He even cooked up a recipe for a yellow-fever-vomit liqueur, which I will include here, because some of you (Hey, who KNOWS the type of people who read the OG?) will want to have it, just in case:

If black vomit be strained through a rag, and the fluid thus obtained be put into a bottle or vial, leaving about one-third part of it empty, this being corked and sealed, if set by for one or two years, will assume a pale red colour, and taste as though it contained a portion of alkohol.
(NB the aging process! Don't come to me and complain your vomit bile tastes "wrong" if you don't properly age it!- the OG)

I know what you're saying: this whack-job Ffirth didn't use other bodily fluids from sick patients, or surely he would've perished. Wrong: he made incisions in his arms and worked in the sweat, urine, blood and saliva of very sick yellow fever patients, with only minor inflammation. Ffirth could only assume he'd more than proved his point: yellow fever was not contagious. He was awarded the MD.

Okay: we now know that yellow fever is caused by mosquito bites carrying an RNA virus. The mosquitoes bite in the hot summer months. Ffirth could have gotten sick. Why didn't he? Boese cites an authority on infectious diseases, Christian Sandrock of UC Davis, who thinks Ffirth got lucky, because mosquito-borne diseases like yellow fever or West Nile virus require direct transmission from mosquito to host. It turns out Ffirth got lucky. He was right: you can't get yellow fever from someone else, but he wrong as to why. It's tempting to say he drank all that vomit "for nothing," but science VALUES wrong ideas like this; we now know you can pour the vomit from a patient with yellow fever into your eye sockets and you'll be fine, come out "smelling like roses," so to speak...just don't get bit by a mosquito! Had he picked smallpox, he'd have died quickly.

Still: hat's off to the brave Stubbins Ffirth, and...bottom's up!

[The aforementioned Alex Boese's 10 Strangest Self-Experiments Ever. I like the guy who did his own surgery.]

The Great Generalist, Somewhat Overweening: Buckminster Fuller
Broke and feeling like a loser, in 1927 Bucky decided knowledge and assumptions about what he or others "knew" was probably based in language, and there might be a problem with language getting in the way of solving problems. So he went silent for two years.

"All this was pretty difficult for my wife, because we were in Chicago and didn't have any money. We had an apartment in the least expensive fireproof tenement I could find, because we did have our baby. I really did stop all sounds, and then gradually started wanting to use a particular sound. I was finally pretty sure I would know what the effects would be on my fellow man if I made a particular sound. I wanted to be sure that when I did communicate that, I really meant to communicate thusly, and that this was me communicating and not somebody else."

Words were tools that mankind developed, but like all tools, they could be used unwisely. By going silent he might learn to re-think how to use words to say what he had thought for himself, uncontaminated by received wisdom. And it seems to have worked. (< Have a gander at that site.)

And the way he used words! Anyone who has read any of his books will be struck by his unorthodox verb-ing use of verbs (because physics tells us that "nouns" are, at the pre-verbal level, dynamic, whirling masses of atoms, nothing is static) and the geometric aspect of his peculiar linguistic fluency.

Here he is, talking, 6 minutes:

Alexander "Sasha"Shulgin
Psychedelic drugs. There's LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, mescaline and peyote, DMT, and probably a couple more you've heard about but have forgotten and that's it, right? No, there are over 300 other psychedelic drugs, most of them synthesized by a man, now 86, who has worked for the DEA and was Professor of Chemistry at Berkeley. He built a lab on his property not far from Berkeley, and with his lifelong knowledge of pharmacological chemistry, concocts analogs of known drugs, never quite knowing how they'll turn out. Add an extra carbon atom here, some nitrogen over there, and the neurological effects can turn out to be quite different from the original potion. How does he know what it's like? He tries them himself. Then he writes a report later, basing it on notes taken or what someone who was not on the drug observed. And memory of the "trip." The range of effects - extremely erotic for one drug, nightmarish for another, dreamy lassitude with enriched colors and sounds with another, uncontrolled vomiting, temporary paralysis, a feeling that his bones were melting, floating, long-lasting euphoria, etc. 

If something has a particularly interesting effect, his wife will try it too and report on the effects. They note the dosages, how long the trip lasts, how long after ingestion it takes to feel effects, what the "peak" of the experience is like. There is an underground of knowledgeable "psychonauts" who will gladly assist in probing a particular drug. Shulgin re-discovered methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or MDMA, or "Ecstasy," and it then became a Big Deal.

Why does Shulgin try these things himself? 
"I take them myself because I am interested in their activity in the human mind. How would you test that in a rat or mouse?"
He thinks we have the right to experiment with ourselves, and when Unistat tried to keep his knowledge from the public, he published it in books, and if you ever get a chance to sit for an hour or two and page through (the at-times admittedly dauntingly technical) PIHKAL or TIKHAL, it ought to be an eye-opener. Recently a documentary on Shulgin was released, but I have yet to see it, as I write this, although I just now noticed the full 90 minute doc in on You Tube, so I'll include it at the end of this blogspew. For those without the 90 mins to spare, here's a one-minute trailer:

Democratization of Self-Experimentation
This DIY idea has been quietly catching on, and I recently maxed out my library card and brought home titles such as Mind Hacks: Tips and Tools For Using Your Brain, Upgrade Your Life, and The Road To Excellence: The Acquisition of Expert Performance in the Arts and Sciences, Sports and Games by K. Anders Ericsson, who tested Joshua Foer's performance on cognitive abilities, including memory, which I mentioned HERE while discussing Foer's road to using a 2000 year old "memory palace" technique in order to win a "mental athlete" memory competition. 

The number of books that report on the author's experience in spending a year (or so) doing a particular outre thing has cascaded in the past ten years. I think of rock critic Neil Strauss falling in with a bunch of not-so-great looking guys who are intensely interested in techniques that work for picking up women (The Game), and Strauss's more recent true-tales of the extreme lengths he went to to become a survivalist because of what happened in Unistat after 9/11, Emergency!:This Book Will Save Your Life, or Beth Lisick's hilarious Helping Me Help Myself, in which she wakes up on New Year's Day with a killer hangover, disgusted with herself, then spends a year by reading and following a different self-help guru each month. There was some bright young guy who mined metal ores and eventually made his own toaster by hand, whose book I have not read. There are many more. 

Scientific Methodology and Problems With Bias
Seth Roberts, emeritus professor at UC Berkeley and some university in China, seems to have had quite a large influence on this...self-experimentational movement
                              Seth Roberts: found a way to manipulate 
                              his own weight via unorthodox methods

Roberts seems to have started off testing his dermatologist's recommendation that he use tetracycline and benzoyl peroxide for his acne. (He's 58 now, so this was a while back.) He took more of the antibiotic than recommended, then counted his pimples. He took less and counted. He was told by "experts" that diet has nothing to do with acne. He assumed the over-the-counter benzoyl peroxide was a sham, but when he finds out what works for him, after looking at his data: tetracycline doesn't work (and he'd assumed it would), and the OTC cream did work. So: he found out what he didn't expect, and this gets at what his critics charge: self-confirmatory bias makes self-experimentation worthless. You must have well-controlled double-blind placebo studies. Seth says: maybe. 

An interesting self-experimenter who's been influenced by Seth is Timothy Ferriss. Here's a link to Ferriss's blog, but note that Seth Roberts argues for the self-experimental method very well in the text below the two videos, said text appearing in Ferriss's book The 4-Hour Body. (Note his points on Mendel and Darwin.) Roberts also defends the "unreasonable effectiveness" of his methodology HERE. Seth's blog is HERE. Libertarian economist Tyler Cowen has been on board with Roberts since 2007.

What do you think? Is it all part of Operation Mindfuck?

This blogspew is dedicated to the first person to eat an artichoke; Kevin Warwick, who wants to be the first cyborg (see HERE and HERE); Morgan Spurlock, who ate supersized McDonald's food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for 30 and made McDonald's re-think some of their menu; and some never-to-be identified primitive homo sapiens who, while standing with a friend, poked him in the ribs and said, "You see that white thing coming out of that chicken's ass? Call me crazy, but I'm eating it!"

Here's the Shulgin doc, Dirty Pictures (2011 Etienne Sauret):

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