Successful Self-Experimentation, part 3: Reflection

Reflection is a bending back. It requires some flexibility.

Reflecting is intimately bound up with recording. If a recording does not reflect well its original, we say it has low fidelity. We prefer the highest degree of fidelity possible, as this gives us the greatest amount of useful information.

Reflection is similarly bound to recollection. Recollection is a reconstitution, and this always involves some adhesive or binding agent, which is an addition to the original component parts and which may keep them from fitting together as closely, or covering the same range of motion, as they once did.

There is an inertia to recollection in that it tends to emphasize only certain recurring surface patterns and diminish those that are less common or more complex. A good record is information-rich enough that its matter-of-factness resists this inertia and keeps the salient complexity of the original experience close at hand.

All that is to say that the quality of your record-keeping can make or break your efforts at self-experimentation.

for the record

Food journal, diet diary, intake-output log—these are all different names for the same indispensable tool. “Food journal” and “diet diary” are a little misleading, in that they give the impression that the only things to be recorded are what you eat. “Intake-output log” is more accurate but also more unwieldy. For purposes of these articles, I’ll just call it a record.

A good record includes all your food, drink, medications, supplements, bathroom visits, menses, sleep, exercise, stressors, emotions, and anything else that might be relevant.

It’s best to start this record before you make any changes, to establish a baseline.

What to put in your record:

  1. Everything that goes in. Be detailed: include salad dressings, marinades, etc. Be as specific as practical, but it’s better to be inspecific than incomplete (i.e., “with oil” is fine if you don’t know what kind of oil). Include drinks, snacks, candy, herbal or vitamin supplements, etc. Be honest or it’s not useful! Make a note of the time.

    5:30pm – hamburger with mayo, ketchup, mustard, pickles, cheese. french-fries. coke.
    6pm – home made pasta and meatballs, salad, ranch dressing, bread with butter. red wine.
    7:30pm – calamus tincture, grassfed steak with onions and shiitake in olive oil, avocado with unrefined sea salt, olives, bacon-wrapped-almond-stuffed-dates, kale, beets. pinot noir.

  2. Everything that comes out. It’s good to be descriptive if possible. Again, note the time.

    7am – urine: dark yellow, scant.
    10am – stool: loose, pale.

  3. Everything you feel. Include everything—physical state (headache, stomach ache, PMS, tennis elbow) and emotional/psychological state (overwhelmed, tired, cranky, anxious, energetic). Note the time.

    10am – hungry, no time to eat.
    1:15pm – jittery, anxious.
    3:00pm – slumped, need caffeine!
    8:00pm – fight with roommate.

  4. When and how much you sleep. Feel free to describe the quality of the sleep, whether you woke up in the night, whether you had dreams and what they were about, etc.
  5. Any other details about the day, with the time if relevant. This might be classes, extra work, time at the gym, a note that your mom visited, your period started, you won the lottery or got in a car accident, . . . anything that affects you physically or emotionally.

symptom scores

For any chronic or recurring pains or ailments you have, you’ll want to include symptom scores in your record. We have a startling capacity to forget the extent of our pains once they are past us. Keeping a record of the severity we assign to a symptom helps us recognize when a therapeutic change is having effect.

This includes taking an inventory before you begin to make changes, noting any complaints you hope to address (e.g. eczema, brain fog, frequent headaches) and how painful or intrusive they are. Then you regularly reassess those complaints as your experiment goes on.

Your symptom scoring can be a simple 1-10 scale of least troublesome to most severe, or it could mean that you put your assessments into key phrases like “so bad I couldn’t sleep/work” or “recurs every ten minutes”. If your experimental changes are having some effect, you’ll see a shift in these values or descriptions over time.

 

This is the time to put your perceptive skills to work. Whenever you write something in your record, give yourself the moment to turn your awareness inward and take careful stock of what is going on in your body, and to reflect on how its present condition compares to how you’ve felt in the past, or how you feel usually. With a good-quality record that includes detailed notes on your intake and output, and meaningful descriptions of your felt experience, you’ll have all the material you need to make connections between them—a process we’ll discuss in the next installment of this series.

 

Other articles in this series:

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