For as long as we have been able to conceive of ourselves, we have been able to conceive of what we might become. The dream of human self-improvement is deep and unbroken: from the meditations of the emperor Marcus Aurelius to the testosterone-fuelled self-help of Anthony Robbins, we have always speculated on, and yearned for, that which can make us better.
Now, a burgeoning global community - originating, as with so much else these days, in the California tech community - has a new take on this old subject. Founded by the Wired magazine editors Kevin Kelly and Gary Wolf, the "quantified self" movement (www.quantifiedself.com) is about using new technologies to track a vast array of physical and mental parameters. Self-quantifiers turn their lives - from physical activity to sleep, from blood sugar to mood - into data that can be analysed, and use the insights they gain to help them improve their lives.
Take one of the most popular products associated with the movement: the Fitbit (www.fitbit.com). This wearable device - about the size of a matchbox - contains an accelerometer able to track metrics such as steps taken, total distance moved, floors climbed and calories burnt, and beam this data to a wireless station. From there, data is uploaded to the Fitbit website, where users can visualise their activity and compare with friends. Meanwhile, the Zeo (www.zeo.com) is a small band that fits around the head and measures key aspects of sleep, including time spent in the REM "dream" state.
Other self-quantifiers are using online tools such as TrackYourHappiness (www.trackyourhappiness.org) to understand more about what makes them feel good, or Rescue Time (www.rescuetime.com) - which tracks your computer use - to visualise how long they're spending on tasks and how to increase productivity.
In every case, self-improvement is the goal. The quantified self movement is full of people who say they've shed pounds and gained an exercise habit thanks to the Fitbit: entirely credible, given the evidence that self-tracking helps you stick to new health behaviours. But more intriguing results have also received a lot of attention. The psychology professor Seth Roberts says that his self-quantifying shows that eating a stick of butter (about 110g) a day improves his ability to do simple maths problems quickly. Could it be that butter can improve cognitive function (even if it does clog up our arteries)?
Now, the quantified self movement is breaking into the mainstream. That's thanks in part to growing recognition that it has wide-ranging implications not just for those bent on self-improvement, but for the unwell, too. At CureTogether (www.curetogether.com), a health-based social network, communities of patients share information on symptoms, treatments and responses, to better understand how to deal with their health conditions. Recently, for example, the migraine community on the site discovered via self-tracking and aggregation of data that people who experience vertigo with their migraines are four times more likely to react badly to the migraine drug Imitrex. That's a new bona-fide discovery, all thanks to self -quantifying.
The future of quantified self, then, may lie with the coming revolution in health care now being made possible by online connectivity. In the meantime, 50 meet-up groups around the world continue to use data to pursue their best selves. If you join them, just remember: the numbers don't lie.