I was watching Episode 3 of the new Cosmos show when Neil deGrasse Tyson said something that reminded me an awful lot of the Quantified Self movement.:
The human talent for pattern recognition is a two-edged sword. We’re especially good at finding patterns, even when they aren’t really there — something known as “false pattern recognition.”
The show was speaking about how our distant ancestors looked up into the night sky and tried to draw meaning from what they saw when a comet passed overhead. But this quote could easily apply to a modern man tracking a few points of data in a spreadsheet trying to find some hidden meaning.
I tracked my headaches, sleep quality and coffee intake for 2.5 years trying to find patterns. The single pattern I found was a decrease in headache frequency when I sharply reduced coffee intake. Look at the chart below.
This was my comet in the sky. And guess what? The pattern was false.
From the moment I stopped doing Quantified Self my headaches plummeted and I didn’t change my coffee intake. With the exception of the month where I was playing Candy Crush, the headaches have almost all but disappeared. I don’t think I’ve had a single headache this entire year that has woke me up in the middle of the night that was intense enough to prevent me from returning to sleep. During the 2.5 year Quantified Self experiment, I averaged 7.5 bad headaches a month.
Why have the headaches disappeared? And how did they disappear all while consuming high levels of coffee? I don’t have a spreadsheet to tell you the answer, but I’ll speak from the gut. The headaches came from stress. One huge source of the stress was Quantified Self. Tracking something daily that I was failing at publicly clearly played a role.
How did I deal with stress? The dopamine hit of another espresso always made me feel a little bit better. But the fact I couldn’t control my coffee intake also made me feel worse. So when I was able to better manage stress and reduce my coffee levels, my headache levels dropped. Coffee was likely a symptom and not the cause.
Today I am drinking a fair amount of coffee. My sleep is perfect and my headaches seem to be gone. Had I not rejected Quantified Self, I never would have learned that coffee intake was a false pattern recognition. I also suspect a lot of the conclusions others are drawing from their Quantified Self experiments are false pattern recognitions.
The rest of the quote from Neil deGrasse Tyson:
We hunger for significance, for signs that our personal existence is of some special meaning to the universe. To that end, we’re all too eager to deceive ourselves and others.