A Problem with the Quantified Self

Or tuning in without plugging in

There's a problem with the quantified self

It might not be a deal breaker but it's a factor to consider or we risk dulling our sense of internal experience.

Sometimes, when I use Google Maps, I get where I’m going but I don’t know where I am.

This happened recently when I went on vacation with my family. I was using Google Maps and I got good directions but as we drove around my wife and kids got a better sense of where everything was.

They were paying attention to the environment, while I was paying attention to the app.

We have a natural sense of direction that perceives and integrates environmental cues, in part, without us even being aware of it.

We are amazing creatures and it’s awesome how we’ve evolved to do this kind of information processing automatically.

Measuring Self

A similar thing is happening with quantified self tools and wellness apps.

We already know when we’re rested or tired. 

We already know when we’re hungry. 

We already know when we’ve gained a few pounds.

We already know when we’re out of breath.

We don’t always need a device or an app to tell us.

Our body produces clear signals about our physiological state. The fancy word for this is interoception

This is our sixth sense.

We are born to deftly process internal cues, though modern life has obscured the messages these cues send to our brains and affected perception and decision making. 

This is noise.

When we become reliant on quantified self devices, we risk distorting our ability to accurately measure our internal states and dulling the tools we were born with that have been sharpened by millions of years of evolution.

Worse, when quantitative self tools are inaccurate, we risk interoceptive miscalibration as our internal signals tell us one thing and the devices tell us another.

Think of getting on a scale that reads a few pounds heavier than you are.


Here’s related a piece I wrote a while back called Buddha Didn’t Use an App under the Bodhi Tree.