Human Experimentation: the Good, the Bad, the Ugly, and the Ice-Obsessed

I come from a family of self-experimenters. Well, okay, I come from a self-diagnosing mama, anyway, and by genetics or preference have embraced that tradition. My mom and I are always “testing” new things out on our bodies and minds. Experimenting with meditation, eating various wonder seeds and oils, vinegar, weird enzymes, cherry juice, crushed and encapsulized herbs, movement techniques, posture, accupressure… we’re pretty much willing to try anything for a potential (life! changing!) health benefit.

The nature of experimentation is that it is a gamble. And our family now has a classic cautionary tale as a result of such a gamble. For years I was told that the women in our family had “too much iron” in our blood, and that we shouldn’t add to it with supplements. This is mostly because my aunt had an issue with Hemochromatosis, and my mom either assumed that was a kind of sister condition, or was told it was an issue she probably had too.

Cut to twenty years later.

I’m home from college for the holidays, listening to my mom say how unbelievable tired she is all the time. Not only that, I notice she is really, really into chewing on ice. And not just any ice. It had to be perfectly half-frozen mineral water. When asked my little sister, still living at home, confirmed that our mother was becoming obsessed with freezing said water in bottles, then repeatedly shaking said bottles, and crunching said ice, day and night.

It took a bit for any of us to realize that her behavior was more than a little odd.  (I mean, we all like our special little snacks, right?) Eventually she saw a doctor for her fatigue, was told she basically had NO iron left in her blood, and was asked how was she even walking. She was also told that all that compulsive ice-chewing was a form of pica disorder, in which severely anemic patients eat non-food items. We were all grateful that at least her weak blood hadn’t compelled her to eat dirt, chalk, clay, or paint chips, and we all had a good long laugh. Though indeed a cautionary tale, the ice-crunching era did not deter us from continuing our tradition of self-diagnosis and experimentation.

I once asked my mom if, hypothetically, she would prepare my (hypothetical) placenta for my consumption if any medical proof arose that the consumption of afterbirth really did help with postpartum related woes, and being the awesome and health-adventurous mama she is, she (hypothetically) agreed.

[Note: 1. While some hippies tote the benefits, to my knowledge there is no clinical evidence eating placenta is good for you, though plenty of wild mammals seem to think it plenty tasty. 2. Theoretical preparation of said placenta involves a dehydration, pulverization, and encapsulation process, and does in no way involve eating a placental steak. 3. I am NOT pregnant.]

But I digress. Point being, it is easy to pop some vitamins, or take a bath in salty milk, or drink vinegar, or stare at a candle for an hour and see what happens. Even choking down a placenta seems withing the realm of semi-reasonable self-experimentation, when compared to say, infecting yourself with hook worms, or strapping radium salts to your arm and observing the resulting chemical burn.

I may dabble in self-diagnosis and experimental treatments, but some scientists make a career out of it. Okay, and some die from it, too.

Recently I’ve been reading a lot about the history of human experimentation. If you’re at all curious (as you should be) what that entailed, watch my latest SciShow video here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hRwWxELXakA

You’ll see that self-experimentation is sort of the odd high-point to an otherwise often dubious series of events and discoveries. Sure, lots and lots of important, life-saving, revolutionary medical and scientific discoveries inevitably had to have some level of human subject testing in their making. Unfortunately, that shit wasn’t always voluntary, and got pretty messed up a lot of the time. And I’m not even talking about the obvious stuff (Nazis, Unit 731, etc.)

Ahh… but self-experimentation… that takes cojones. And conviction. Yeah, and maybe ego, which I suppose is some version of cojones + conviction anyway. Or a death wish. Either way, when you swallow that petri dish of bacteria, or zap yourself with gamma rays, you never know if it is going to lead to a Nobel Prize, or death, or a distinct green coloration a steroidal rage issue. It’s a mixed bag.

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