Successful Self-Experimentation, part 2: Perception

When engaging in self-experimentation, there are certain skills that must be put into play in order to get useful results. First are the sensory skills that form the borders of our interactions with the external world, and can give us insights into our own internal world as well.

developing sensory skills

We consider a measurement or assessment with criteria for reliability: if it can be tested, if it can be communicated, if it can be reproduced, we call it objective. But what, exactly, is being tested, communicated, reproduced? A position on a gradient, perhaps, or a density of one type of cell in a sample, or a ratio of one biomolecule’s prevalence to another’s; a set of perceptions. Quantified, objectified, given specificity and symbolic value so as to be compared to benchmarks—but perceptions nonetheless.

Measurement is a perceptive act. Microscopes and stethoscopes, antigen assays and whole blood counts, all are tools to enhance, extend, or expand our perceptions. When we achieve a threshold of perspective-giving breadth or focus-finding depth in perception, we refer to it as a measurement. We should not forget that the tools we use do not change the fundamental nature of the act.

Those mentioned above are external tools; there are internal tools as well. Meditation traditions have taught for ages that perception is something which must be practiced and developed in order to be reliable. With such tools, we can take internal measurements as well as external; with such practice, we can approach, and perhaps cross, the threshold from subjectivity to objectivity.

To bring that down to [h]earth, if we’re willing to engage in a disciplined effort to become more perceptive of what is going on in our bodies, we can learn to detect its responses to our actions, and use them as guides when making changes.

mindfulness and intuition

One internal perceptive tool is the idea of mindful eating. A shorthand for this tactic is eat when hungry (usually paired with sleep when tired). Simple as that sounds, there is a little more to the story.

When practicing mindful eating, one goal is to always pause for a moment before eating anything, to ask yourself, “am I actually hungry right now?” and “is this what I want to be eating?”, to consider a moment, and only then to decide whether to eat it or not. This can be very helpful when trying to curb boredom-snacking between meals and other unconscious eating habits.

What has become automatic must be reconsidered and reassessed. Over time, the need for conscious intervention in the assessment diminishes. You find you have to ask yourself the question less often, and spend less time deciding how to answer it, until it passes into [p]reaction. Mindfulness in a particular area of life has a habit of developing into intuition about that area.

As it turns out, intuition is a skill—something which is understood intellectually and initially learned by focused force of will alone, but which operates more efficiently and effectively if it is practiced to the point of becoming instinctual and reactive. Martial arts and symbolic logic are skills. Herbal formulation and constitutional assessment are skills.

Intuition is a skill of (semi|un)conscious perception and pattern recognition. Others, less liminal in their nature, come into play during self-experimentation as well.

interoception

Developing and exercising all the senses is important. Students of herbal medicine learn to identify plants and their characteristics organoleptically—using their senses as a fine-tuned chemistry set. The bright smells of warming aromatic oils, the sweet-tasting slipperiness of mucilaginous polysaccharides, and other sensory input give us information about the plants and what they can do in the body. But we as self-experimenters can also develop the direct sensory experience of our internal condition. Interoception or visceroception is a fancy (or, if you prefer, precise) name for this.

I found this book while looking for the current term for this sense, and I’m looking forward to reading it. From the foreword: “Mood and emotion, according to Ádám, can be influenced by bodily feedback outside of awareness. Visceral activity—which can be the result of digestion, exercise, and a variety of known and unknown factors — can thus specifically effect mood states.”

This seems fairly well accepted now, as evidenced by articles like this one from Current Opinion in Neurobiology in August 2003: “In humans, a meta-representation of the primary interoceptive activity is engendered in the right anterior insula, which seems to provide the basis for the subjective image of the material self as a feeling (sentient) entity, that is, emotional awareness.”

The fact that this area of the sensorium is generally considered “outside of awareness” doesn’t necessarily mean that it is irrevocably so. This may be so in the majority of people (and/or the majority of the time), but in the same way that it is possible to retrain atrophied muscles in the foot and learn to lift each toe individually at will, it should also be possible to [re]develop sensory sensitivity to the internal body—both visceral and emotional.

Also from the foreword to the Ádám book: “One of the problems of symptom reports may well be that they are, by definition, conscious verbal labels. The mere process of tagging visceral cues to language may distort the visceral information.” Here, too, we should recognize the possibility that we can learn to give name or number to our sensations in a reliable way.

Learning to do so requires practice; that practice is embodied in reflection, our topic for next time.

 

Other articles in this series:

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