Seth Roberts' fascinating self-experiments

My friend and Wired writer extraordinaire Gary Wolf has been researching people who self-experiment . He recently discovered a fascinating "champion of self-experimentation" named Seth Roberts, an emeritus professor of psychology at UC Berkeley.
Does standing up a lot during the day reduce susceptibility to colds? Go ahead and doubt it; I did. But Roberts has data to back it up, and while it would be foolish to believe that standing up a lot during the day would eliminate colds across an entire population -- foolish, that is, without experiments to prove it -- Roberts' own practice of standing up a lot has a lot more empirical back-up than many of the more "sensible" things we naively believe.

Here's anther one: for a long time Roberts had a problem with his sleep. He woke too early, could not go back to sleep, and then was tired in the morning. He tried different ways to cure this problem until, through a combination of coincidence, experiment and analysis of the data, he discovered an expected correlation: his problem disappeared when he skipped breakfast. He cured his early awakening by not eating until 11 a.m.

The idea that skipping breakfast may reduce early awakening was, wrote Roberts, "a new idea in sleep research." Strangely, Roberts was not hungry in the wee hours when he was troubled by early awakening, which lead him to suspect that it was not discomfort that roused him, but rather some glitch in his sleep cycle caused by anticipation of food.

You can download a PDF of Roberts' paper, Self-experimentation as a source of new ideas: Ten examples about sleep, mood, health, and weight.



  1. Doe sthat count as ‘real’ experimentation?

    This is all speculation, seeing as I haven’t read it in entirety, but doesn’t research have to be objective and independant?

  2. I’ve been self-experimenting with sex deprivation for years now… amazing how peaceful life becomes…

  3. Standing up all day == your hands aren’t all over every surface within reach of your rolling chair. No big surprise that this reduces your exposure to colds. Most colds are transmitted through hand-to-face contact, rather than through airborne means.

  4. what was that again about fat burning can only happen metabolically if you are standing?

  5. Really interesting idea. Really awful science.

    I think this notion of self-improvement-as-research-project has some merit, though, from the motivational psychology blueprint. Setting out to exercise 30 minutes a day 3 days a week is a vague, indefinite goal. But setting out to measure and plot the effect on resting heart rate of exercising 30 minutes a day 3 days a week for 12 weeks almost sounds interesting. So, insofar as “self-experimentation” can help make personal goals more concrete and hence more attainable, I think it’s a great idea. The problem comes when one tries to generalize beyond oneself.

  6. I’m skeptical of that verticality theory – many prone-or-reclining but athletic activities spring to mind. Why wouldn’t they burn fat?

  7. …okay, now I’ve RTFA, as they say on /.
    The point isn’t really how well documented or how carefully reasoned or supported the ideas he came up with are – the point is that the self-experimentation process itself generated so many ideas that are plausible enough to serve as further research areas. As an idea-generating process, this seems to be a good one.

  8. Seth Roberts was my Psychology 1 professor at UC Berkeley, and he told us about his breakfast experiment. He used it as an illustration of applying the scientific method to a problem rather than doing things based on superstition. Good class; I went on to get my degree in psychology, in part because of his class.

  9. There is some heavy statistical analysis in his research. Such is the mark of good experimentation.

    The sample size is small, but large research efforts must begin somewhere.

  10. That is really uncanny. I have a rare disease – actually, never could be diagnosed, not after sixteen years, even by NIH – and I’m severely disabled. A bizarre feature is that for the past three years I’ve needed to spend nearly all my non bedridden time in a kneeling position. Outside of severe osteo, peripheral neuropathy, wasting away of soft tissue and connective tissue, spasm/taut bands throughout my muscles and skin lesions, I’ve never been healthier.

    Seriously. Apart from what’s become “the usual” for my body, not one cold or sniffle.

  11. @6, thigh and buttock are biggest muscles, some kind of “afterburner”?
    @12, would not something so specific and idiosyncratic (the kneeling posture) be marked throughout all nation’s medical literature? My sincere commiserations also, it sounds a heavy burden.

  12. “A third intriguing explanation has to do with fat-burning enzymes that naturally occur in your body. According to new research from the University of Missouri-Columbia, when you sit, these enzymes seem to shut off. This prevents stored fat from being put into the blood stream to be used as an energy source. The research also seems to indicate that when you are seated, fat that is already in the blood stream prefers to be stored in the fat tissue instead of being burned by muscle.”

  13. the braced,seated position for rowing, wherein the entire body (large leg muscles included) is used to generate the strongest possible stroke of the sweep is hardly “sitting”. …are these rowers wealthy and promiscuous?

  14. His unflavored calorie (extra-light olive oil) diet seems ridiculous. Yet, I have followed it and lost 23 pounds in two months. Seven to go!

  15. I’m too cheap to pay for a real usenet provider, but I’m sure there is a torrent floating around.

  16. Personal experience: I dropped 2 inches off my pants size while sedentary and healing from a broken collarbone on Shangri-La. That was before I could even start exercising.

    If you’re interested, all my posts on the Shangri-La diet are here.

  17. Agent, I thought that for years too, and then one day recently I just tried entering the news server details for my current provider (BT UK) into a free client, and bingo! I had Usenet access already included in my package, unbeknownst. And the BT servers seem to have great binary retention.

    Unless you know for sure already, do check it out..

  18. Antinous,

    no, same good woman. I just spent the last few weeks struggling with revision for my end of year exams and finishing all my assignments, and then actually doing the exams. And then spent this last weekend building the stages for the University Summer Ball, and then I got wasted, and now I’m Ba-ack!

    Summer Holidays! :)
    Getting a real job again! :(

  19. What insights would you like? I’ve some good ones..

    How about the entire touring staff of Barbra Streisand thinks she’s a dick?

    Or my claim to fame, I built the stage that Michael Jackson got boo’ed off, at the European Music Awards.. Yess!

  20. I tell you one insight..

    Putting up big shows, you really get to see a) How much money and work it takes to put on a tour, b) how much money can be made in a single night, c) just how much waste (electricity/fuel/food) is involved in rock’n’roll.

    I mean, it may cost a million dollars to move, build and run a big show (per location), and that sounds like an awful lot of money. But if you can get 100,000 folks to part with $50 over two nights, that’s $5 million! Profit $4 million in two nights!

    U2, Rolling Stones etc, easy. Barbra streisand was charging €500 for top-class seats in Dublin. €1000 if you wanted to sit in on the sound check as well. BOSH!

    But really, this shit is BIG and WASTEFUL, there could be 20 or more big, articulated trucks driving the stage/equipment around. And on a big tour, there could be two or three units (of the same number of trucks), where one stage is played, while the others are built and set up ahead in the next places, so the bands can go night-to-night, while the last stage is dismantled and moved to the next spot.. Plus, there is all of the touring crew, maybe 10 or 15 main people, plus drivers in each truck, plus the hundreds of local crew, who build and populate each stage, in each location.
    (admittedly, these numbers only really go for the mega-bands, but it’s the same, just on a smaller scale for all the rest).

    It’s genuinely something to think about though. If someone could step in with the express intention of curbing costs in a clever way (I know they have accountants who do exactly that, but it only seems to work on the macro level), they could clean up in this industry, big $$$. I dunno, not necessarily “green” but that could be it.

  21. all that happens when the bean counters get the upper hand in show business is that the people at the very bottom of the food chain get squeezed yet again. All the standard corruption and bloat is so institutionalized, the stars so greedy, naive and fleeting that it’s almost impossible to change at thing. The fattest cats are the producer/promoters. Organized crime is well represented (usually transport) and the tax man hasn’t the vaguest clue who to go after beyond making tax exiles of the performers. Watch for a while, the only one who is ever made to feel the pain is the schmuck hired for the day to unload/load the truck.

  22. I am that schmuck, more often than not.

    And that’s mostly my point. I mean bottom up changes (because as we both mention, there ain’t a lot of benefit coming down from the top).

  23. Ive done a little self examination and after reading the 38 prior post’s it appears the last six posts have nothing to do with this thread. Anyone else noticing this?

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