The Measure of a Man

Astrophysicist and computer scientist Larry Smarr is the “measured man,” the focus of the Atlantic’s July/Aug article by Mark Bowden:

When Larry works out, an armband records skin temperature, heat flux, galvanic skin response, and acceleration in three dimensions. When he sleeps, a headband monitors the patterns of his sleep every 30 seconds. He has his blood drawn as many as eight times a year, and regularly tracks 100 separate markers. He is on a first-name basis with his ultrasound and MRI technicians, who provide him with 3-D images of his body, head to toe. Regular colonoscopies record the texture and color of his innards. And then there are the stool samples—last year Larry sent specimens to a lab for analysis nine times.

What this guy is doing, which he proposes we might all do — and hopes that the field of medicine will reinvent itself so that in a few years, we all have regularly updated computerised images of our specific bodies — strikes me as neurotic and a sad way to live, but Smarr might see me as in denial or too willing to accept the “unscientific” way medicine is practiced today.

I have to say that the words of Dr. Welch, whose view is contrary to Smarr’s, resonate for me:

Do people really want or need to know this much about themselves? Is such a preoccupation with health even healthy? What if swimming in oceans of bio-data causes more harm than good?

‘Frankly, I’d rather go river rafting,’ says Dr. H. Gilbert Welch, a professor of medicine at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, and the author of Overdiagnosed: Making People Sick in the Pursuit of Health. ‘Data is not information. Information is not knowledge. And knowledge is certainly not wisdom.’ Welch believes that individuals who monitor themselves as closely as Larry does are pretty much guaranteed to find something ‘wrong.’ Contradictory as it sounds, he says abnormality is normal.

‘It brings to mind the fad a few years ago with getting full-body CT scans,’ Welch says. ‘Something like 80 percent of those who did it found something abnormal about themselves. The essence of life is variability. Constant monitoring is a recipe for all of us to be judged “sick.” Judging ourselves sick, we seek intervention.’ And intervention, usually with drugs or surgery, he warns, is never risk-free. Humbler medical practitioners, aware of the sordid history of some medical practices (see: bloodletting, lobotomy, trepanning), weigh the consequences of intervention carefully. Doing no harm often demands doing nothing. The human body is, after all, remarkably sturdy and self-healing. As Welch sees it, ‘Arming ourselves with more data is guaranteed to unleash a lot of intervention’ on people who are basically healthy.

Not to mention creating an epidemic of anxiety. In other words, the ‘quantified life’ might itself belong to the catalog of affliction, filed under Looking too closely, hazards of.

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