Chapter 1 What is Personal Science?

If you suffer from a chronic condition, one of your first struggles is simply how bad is it?. What is the precise version or name of this disease? What makes you different from a healthy person, or from the healthy person you used to be? Are there other people with the same condition, and if so, how does your situation compare to theirs? Are you getting better or worse?

In other words, you want to know the context. The first step in any treatment plan requires that you understand how you compare…to healthy people, to those who have the same condition as you do, to people who have partially or fully recovered. Are you improving or deteriorating?

Even symptom tracking is just one aspect of the question of context. I want to know more precisely the conditions under which my problem gets better or worse. In other words, what is the context? (e.g. are my migraines triggered by high altitudes, by caffeine, by stress, by something else? All of these are just other ways of saying “context”).

One simple example: what’s the best way to treat a headache? There’s no good answer to that question unless you understand something about the context surrounding the person involved. The appropriate response will depend on whether he or she:

  • gets headaches all the time.
  • rarely gets headaches.
  • drank heavily the night before.
  • recently ate raw seafood from a street vendor.
  • Underwent a course of antibiotics for a tick bite last summer and seemed to get better until now.

We know intuitively that each medical situation depends on the circumstances. Doctors are helpful partly because they’ve seen so many other cases that they can quickly focus attention on the aspects that are important to a specific individual. In other words, doctors are trained to recognize the full context, to see how this situation compares to others.