A curious article in last week’s New York Times Magazine, The Data-Driven Life, examined the somewhat geeky, but increasing phenomenon of tracking quantifiable aspects of one’s life, chiefly by means of computers. Things tracked ranged from coffee consumption, time spent doing roommate’s dishes, time spent sleeping, tracking cognitive performance — one man claims to have a record of every thought he has had since 1984. While some of these pursuits seem a tad trifling, many have practical applications — exercise logs, increasing awareness of drinking patterns, a mood chart for depressives — yet charges of navel-gazing self-absorption are difficult to fend off.
I think an important point emerges, however. The data that these people are collecting is their data. In an age where “evidence based treatments” are increasingly touted, this is not a small point. Such treatments carry weight with insurance companies precisely because they claim to measure the outcomes of their treatment. And they do, in a way. But what research deals in is generalities. Generalities. Just because, say, DBT, works quite well for many women with a certain diagnosis is no guarantee whatsoever that it will work for you. What people are doing is essentially research on what works for themselves, invaluable information if you think about it.
Self-experiments like Barbier’s and Roberts’s are not clinical trials. The goal isn’t to figure out something about human beings generally but to discover something about yourself. Their validity may be narrow, but it is beautifully relevant. Generally, when we try to change, we simply thrash about: we improvise, guess, forget our results or change the conditions without even noticing the results. Errors are possible in self-tracking and self-experiment, of course. It is easy to mistake a transient effect for a permanent one, or miss some hidden factor that is influencing your data and confounding your conclusions. But once you start gathering data, recording the dates, toggling the conditions back and forth while keeping careful records of the outcome, you gain a tremendous advantage over the normal human practice of making no valid effort whatsoever.
“Generally, when we try to change, we simply thrash about.” How often does psychotherapy resemble this statement? Don’t psychotherapists, in some sense, track data — the personal data of our clients’ fantasies, idiosyncrasies, miseries? Might we not incorporate some more quantifiable methods of tracking some of these data?
Good psychotherapy is exquisitely tailored to the individual. And how that tailoring occurs is in the give-and-take within the therapeutic relationship. Standard treatment, in some sense, fail from the outset. This last excerpt speaks to the potential cold comfort of standardized treatment, and how it is not in any way tailored to the individual:
“Here’s what they told me was the normal surgical course of treatment,” Adler explained. “First they were going to cut out my tonsils, and if that didn’t work, they would break my jaw and reset it to reposition my tongue, and finally they would cut out the roof of my mouth. I had one question: What if my case is different? They said, ‘Let’s try the standard course of treatment first, and if that doesn’t work, then we’ll know your case is different.’ ” Adler recognized what this proposal meant: it meant that his doctors had no cure for different. They wanted to see him as a standard case, because they have treatments for the standard cases. Before Adler underwent surgery, he wanted some evidence that he was a standard case. Some of us aren’t standard, after all; perhaps many of us aren’t.