Weirdly useful science of the amateur lab rats
At first glance, the creature sitting in an office at Reading University looks startlingly human. The skin is wrinkled, the hair grey, just like a man in his mid-fifties. It is clothed in a bright shirt, with matching sweater, and speaks with plausible traces of a Midlands accent. Only when you stare closely do you notice a small sticking plaster on its brow. Does this mark some new repair, or implant?
Okay, that’s enough of that. This isn’t the monster created by Frankenstein — Danny Boyle’s version of which has just opened at the National Theatre to rave reviews. The creature in Reading is real: Kevin Warwick is both monster and mad professor — a scientist who has won fame over the past decade or so by augmenting his ordinary human body with electronic implants to become some kind of cyborg.
He uses his own body as his laboratory, and now it is becoming clear that he’s not the only one. Many others, unconnected with academic institutions, are crafting experiments and monitoring themselves in the name of science, then coming together online and in the real world to share their findings.
One woman prominently involved predicts that “self-hacking”, facilitated by the internet, will be the next big thing. “In two to three years it will be mainstream,” says Adriana Lukas. “It’s being driven by people who want to solve problems and find ways to get things done.”
Her own group of self-hackers, in London, meets for regular “show and tell” sessions. At one, a man named Jon Cousins described how he had launched a study of his own mood swings to demonstrate to doctors that he was bipolar. His results led to the London Institute of Psychiatry putting money into further research into his methods to help others. “It was the first research investment of its kind to have been instigated by a patient,” Lukas says.
For now, Warwick remains one of Britain’s most impressive self-hackers. A decade or so back he volunteered to have a microchip inserted into his left arm. It was programmed to open doors, turn on lights and prompt his PC to greet him with: “Hello, Professor Warwick.”
Four years later, he had surgeons hammer electrodes into the median nerve in his wrist. They had to cut through the sheath protecting the nerve, opening up the possibility of serious infection and potentially the loss of function in his arm.
He wore the electrodes for several weeks, getting used to interpreting the sensations they produced. Then his wife had a smaller array attached to her nerve for 24 hours. Each was linked to a computer on a network, in different rooms, and they communicated by sending pulses from one brain to another, by clenching and unclenching their hands.
“When she moved her hand and I received the signal in my brain, it was quite intimate,” he says. “We did something that, as far as I’m aware, no one else has ever done.” He has since had the chip and electrodes removed. Does he miss them? “Oh yeah.”
With advances in prosthetics, it is conceivable that by the time of the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 the “disabled” will be faster than rest. “The bionic man isn’t fictional any more,” says Mark Stevenson in his new book, An Optimist’s Tour of the Future. “Considering the growth in cosmetic surgery, it seems highly likely that in the not too distant future someone will elect to have a perfectly healthy limb deliberately removed and replaced with a ‘better’ artificial one.”
No doctor, however, would dare to carry out that kind of surgery. And it is largely because of ethics that Warwick decided to have the implant himself: why should anybody else submit to the dangers if he wouldn’t?
Such self-experimentation has an august history. The Australian gastroenterologist Barry Marshall, for one, believed that stomach ulcers were caused by a bug rather than stress. To prove it, in 1982, he exposed himself to the bug and immediately developed severe colitis. In 2005 he was rewarded with a Nobel prize.
Of course, such an approach has its risks. Some pioneers will have poisoned themselves, like Marie Curie; others have died in explosions.
Lukas, the founder of London’s Quantified Self group, is not an obsessive self-hacker but says the people who have presented at its meetings have been breathtaking.
Take Cousins. Psychiatrists had asked him to map his moods for three months, he said, so he developed a simple way of doing that online and sharing the mood map with friends every day. They provided a supportive network akin to WeightWatchers.
His moods immediately started to improve and became more stable: the act of monitoring had itself produced an effect — just as when smokers count their cigarettes they tend to smoke fewer.
“The point is to seek some kind of improvement,” Lukas says. “This is driven by people trying to solve their own problems, but there is a greater achievement if people meet others doing the same kinds of things — providing a kind of peer review. I think the next Twitter or Facebook will be an organisation that gives people a way to analyse and visualise their data.”
Several sites have started to spring up, including Your.FlowingData.com and Quantter.com, whose founder Denis Harscoat explains: “We want people to do their own research and they will soon find other people doing the same things, who care about the results for that reason.”
Alexandra Carmichael had medical tests that showed a high likelihood of Tourette’s, and wondered if this might explain the tics she struggles to control. So she listed all her different tics. Surprised at how many there were, she went on to list the triggers. She started to track patterns, using an iPhone app, then listed possible remedies and tracked the extent to which they helped. After several weeks she was able to see that meditating for 25 minutes a day made the greatest difference. “I learnt to be gentle with myself — to accept my differences — and I learnt the power of self-experimentation to find effective remedies.”
Other experiments by self-hackers have included an attempt to determine whether eating butter improves a person’s skill at arithmetic, and whether cold showers really do improve mood. One area Warwick’s students are investigating is sense. “As humans we have fairly limited senses,” he says. “We are missing out on sonar, that bats have, and infrared vision, and x-rays, and so on. Our work is looking at grabbing hold of nerve fibres to get different sensory inputs.”
Some of his students had magnets implanted in their fingers. If a coil is placed around the finger, the magnet vibrates to reflect a variety of signals. Thus, students can “feel” distance from objects, or heat. “This could be useful to soldiers,” Warwick says. “They could point around rooms and locate people who are hiding by their body temperature.”
His enthusiasm is delightful, but not all the cases he mentions are reassuring. “We have one student who put an electric current into his tongue as part of an experiment. The next day when I saw him he couldn’t speak properly. He said, ‘Urrgh.’ He’d got the voltage wrong. But he’s okay now, the swelling has gone down.”
The path of scientific discovery was ever a rocky one.
1231 words. First published 27 February 2011. © Times Newspapers Ltd.