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Inside the Mind of a Mad Scientist: The Incredible Importance of Personal Science

Inside the Mind of a Mad Scientist: The Incredible Importance of Personal Science

For decades the world’s greatest doctors and researchers believed that stomach ulcers and stomach cancers were caused by stress, spicy foods, and too much acid in the stomach.

Barry Marshall, an Australian physician and microbiology researcher, wasn’t buying it. Marshall believed that stomach ulcers were not merely the byproduct of a hectic life or an overly spicy dinner. Instead, he believed ulcers were caused by bacteria. More specifically, Marshall believed ulcers were caused by Helicobacter pylori.

There was, however, a problem with this theory.

Marshall and his lab partner were pretty much the only people who bought into the crazy idea. Despite his belief, Marshall had been unable to prove the link between bacteria and ulcers in his lab experiments on pigs, and his grant money was running out. Meanwhile, thousands of people continued to die from stomach cancer each year.

The Mad Scientist

Fed up with the situation, Marshall decided to take matters into his own hands and conduct a personal science experiment of the boldest kind.

In July of 1984, Marshall held a beaker of cloudy, brown liquid that was swimming with Helicobacter pylori and prepared to take a swallow. He “drank it down in one gulp then fasted for the rest of the day.”

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In the words of physician Siddhartha Mukherjee, Marshall had swallowed a carcinogen to create a precancerous state in his own stomach.

Three days later, Marshall started feeling nauseous. On Day 5, he began to vomit and continued doing so for three days straight. All the while, his colleague took samples of the bacteria in Marshall’s stomach lining and recorded the physiological changes as Marshall began to develop a severe episode of gastritis in his stomach. After two weeks of self-induced hell, Marshall had the proof he needed and began taking antibiotics.

Luckily he made a full recovery. Within a month, Marshall and his colleagues had submitted his experiment and results to the Medical Journal of Australia for publication. Not only had they proven that Helicobacter pylori was the cause of stomach ulcers, they had also revealed an important precursor to stomach cancer. Marshall and his lab partner, Robin Warren, received the 2005 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their efforts.

helicobacter-pylori
    Helicobacter pylori under the microscope. (Photographer: Yutaka Tsutsumi, M.D. Image Source: Department of Pathology, Fujita Health University School of Medicine.)

    The Power of Personal Science

    Barry Marshall is a real-life mad scientist. He drank a cancerous cocktail in the hopes of discovering a scientific truth. His story is one of many mentioned in the fantastic book, The Emperor of All Maladies (audiobook). (1)

    Marshall is an extreme case of what my friend Josh Kaufman calls “personal science.”

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    Personal science refers to the idea of executing small experiments on your own with the intention of discovering new ways to solve problems and get results in your life. While typical studies are conducted on a large scale and published in academic journals, personal science experiments involve a single patient (you) and are focused on delivering highly practical and useful pieces of information.

    Marshall used personal science to further his career goals, whereas you and I may use personal science to build a new health habit or improve our performance at work. The goal of these mini-experiments is to discover what gets you real-world results. As a writer and researcher who tries to blend science-based ideas with practical insights, I believe this philosophy of self-experimentation is incredibly important.

    Why?

    Because no matter how much science and theory you understand, you can never get results in your own life unless you have the courage to take action.

    Unleashing Your Inner Mad Scientist

    Personal science isn’t an excuse to do something reckless. I don’t, for example, recommend drinking a test tube of precancerous bacteria. I do, however, believe that executing your own experiments and having a willingness to try things will make your life better.

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    Here are a few reasons why:

    Personal science forces you to move past planning. If you want to accelerate your learning, develop new skills, and get useful results, then you must try new things. So often we wait to take action because we believe we need to read or research more. What if, as an alternative, we spent less time trying to find the best strategy and more time testing the strategies we already have? It can be easy to forget that practice is often the most powerful form of learning.

    Personal science is low risk. Unlike Marshall’s crazy cancer slushie, nearly any experiment you or I will conduct is typically low risk. Rarely do we face life-or-death, cancer-in-the-stomach type of risks. Usually, the barriers to our progress are discomfort, uncertainty, inconvenience, and the fear of criticism. Personal science forces us to move past these emotional hurdles and see them for what they really are: limiting beliefs.

    Here are some examples:

    • Wish you would finally write your book? Experiment with cutting out an activity you enjoy to make time for this important goal. What is the potential risk? Are you really worried that you’ll miss this season of your favorite TV show?
    • Trying to eat healthier? Create a bright-line rule and experiment with eating one vegetable per day, no matter what. What is the potential risk? That you’ll have a long day and have to make a batch of asparagus at 10 p.m.?
    • Want to be an early riser? Experiment with waking up at 5 a.m. this week. What is the potential risk? That you’ll feel tired for a week?

    Personal science teaches you the key to true problem solving. We often read books and rely on research studies for the answers to our problems. Knowing where to get information is a useful skill, but the key to good problem solving is not to have someone else do the work for you. The key to good problem solving is a willingness to try things, experiment thoughtfully, and do the work. (2)

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    Step Into the Arena

    We all live our lives in different laboratories. Your corner of the world—filled with your experiences, your biology, your environment, your friends, your beliefs—is a different petri dish than mine. There are plenty of fundamentals that apply to all petri dishes, but no matter where you find yourself you have to be willing to experiment if you want to get a result.

    Let your mad scientist out every now and then. Step into the arena and put yourself through the fire. The only truth is what works for you. (3)

    This article was originally published on JamesClear.com.
    FOOTNOTES
    1. The Emperor of All Maladies really is an incredible read. I highly recommend it, especially if you love science. Or, if you just want to be blown away by the amount of effort one author can put into a book.
    2. This does not, by the way, mean that others do not have a responsibility to teach and to share their knowledge. Just because we should help one another, however, does not mean you are entitled to having others figure your problems out for you.
    3. Thanks to Siddhartha Mukherjee, Josh Kaufman, and Matt Gemmell who each inspired pieces of this article.

    Featured photo credit: Penn State via flickr.com

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    James Clear

    James Clear is the author of Atomic Habits. He shares self-improvement tips based on proven scientific research.

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    Last Updated on March 23, 2021

    Manage Your Energy so You Can Manage Your Time

    Manage Your Energy so You Can Manage Your Time

    One of the greatest ironies of this age is that while various gadgets like smartphones and netbooks allow you to multitask, it seems that you never manage to get things done. You are caught in the busyness trap. There’s just too much work to do in one day that sometimes you end up exhausted with half-finished tasks.

    The problem lies in how to keep our energy level high to ensure that you finish at least one of your most important tasks for the day. There’s just not enough hours in a day and it’s not possible to be productive the whole time.

    You need more than time management. You need energy management

    1. Dispel the idea that you need to be a “morning person” to be productive

    How many times have you heard (or read) this advice – wake up early so that you can do all the tasks at hand. There’s nothing wrong with that advice. It’s actually reeks of good common sense – start early, finish early. The thing is that technique alone won’t work with everyone. Especially not with people who are not morning larks.

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    I should know because I was once deluded with the idea that I will be more productive if I get out of bed by 6 a.m. Like most of you Lifehackers, I’m always on the lookout for productivity hacks because I have a lot of things in my plate. I’m working full time as an editor for a news agency, while at the same time tending to my side business as a content marketing strategist. I’m also a travel blogger and oh yeah, I forgot, I also have a life.

    I read a lot of productivity books and blogs looking for ways to make the most of my 24 hours. Most stories on productivity stress waking up early. So I did – and I was a major failure in that department – both in waking up early and finishing early.

    2. Determine your “peak hours”

    Energy management begins with looking for your most productive hours in a day. Getting attuned to your body clock won’t happen instantly but there’s a way around it.

    Monitor your working habits for one week and list down the time when you managed to do the most work. Take note also of what you feel during those hours – do you feel energized or lethargic? Monitor this and you will find a pattern later on.

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    My experiment with being a morning lark proved that ignoring my body clock and just doing it by disciplining myself to wake up before 8 a.m. will push me to be more productive. I thought that by writing blog posts and other reports in the morning that I would be finished by noon and use my lunch break for a quick gym session. That never happened. I was sleepy, distracted and couldn’t write jack before 10 a.m.

    In fact that was one experiment that I shouldn’t have tried because I should know better. After all, I’ve been writing for a living for the last 15 years, and I have observed time and again that I write more –and better – in the afternoon and in evenings after supper. I’m a night owl. I might as well, accept it and work around it.

    Just recently, I was so fired up by a certain idea that – even if I’m back home tired from work – I took out my netbook, wrote and published a 600-word blog post by 11 p.m. This is a bit extreme and one of my rare outbursts of energy, but it works for me.

    3. Block those high-energy hours

    Once you have a sense of that high-energy time, you can then mold your schedule so that your other less important tasks will be scheduled either before or after this designated productive time.

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    Block them out in your calendar and use the high-energy hours for your high priority tasks – especially those that require more of your mental energy and focus. You also need to use these hours to any task that will bring you closer to you life’s goal.

    If you are a morning person, you might want to schedule most business meetings before lunch time as it’s important to keep your mind sharp and focused. But nothing is set in stone. Sometimes you have to sacrifice those productive hours to attend to other personal stuff – like if you or your family members are sick or if you have to attend your son’s graduation.

    That said, just remember to keep those productive times on your calendar. You may allow for some exemptions but stick to that schedule as much as possible.

    There’s no right or wrong way of using this energy management technique because everything depends on your own personal circumstances. What you need to remember is that you have to accept what works for you – and not what other productivity gurus say you should do.

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    Understanding your own body clock is the key to time management. Without it, you end up exhausted chasing a never-ending cycle of tasks and frustrations.

    Featured photo credit: Collin Hardy via unsplash.com

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