Updated: Jun 16
People start to believe their personal findings more than they do with science. And this is only the very beginning of one of the most important trends in health & self-care.
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This is personal
I’m obsessed with change. That’s why I focus my days studying them. I study how customers change, how competitors in an industry change and how the business context changes. In understanding change, my clients can make a change. That’s what it is about. It’s a form of science in which you observe, learn and adapt.
This newsletter is precisely about a similar type of science in which one observes, learns and adapts. It’s a relatively new evolution that I’ve been practising myself a bit for the last six years or so. To make this newsletter a bit more personal, I’ll slide in some of my personal observations that I have used to learn from and adapt my personal life against. Good luck finding them.
This is personal science
This newsletter on “personal science” is vital for all healthcare businesses and, in extension, all parties that want to educate their customers. I firmly believe this topic is important because it is too often ignored. And I believe it is being ignored because very few people consider it important enough. So, allow me to give it some due attention. Let’s give “personal science” some consideration in this newsletter
In this long read, you will learn how (1) personalisation and the (2) availability of science have fueled a trend of ‘personal science’ that needs to be reckoned with. The trend originates from the aspiration of (3) self-improvement and is incited by (4) science-baked brands and (5) personalised health solutions. These evolutions gave people the feeling of control to improve themselves. And today, that is precisely what personal science is:
the scientific truth by and for an individual.
Since the advent of search engines, the world has changed drastically. We were suddenly able to look for (all) information ourselves. We suddenly had access to information that was not easy to find before or that was personally important to us. Perhaps search engines were one of the first personal services that really made a difference in our lives. It somehow gave a sense of 'control' that we had never felt before.
The entire digital transformation that followed, in turn, made everything even more personal. Data is continuously collected and processed about us so that every piece of information or every service provided is close to what interests us. Facebook presents you posts by people you often interact with; Spotify suggests music resembling your most frequently played artists; Netflix streams similar content without you having to get up from your couch. And what's more, it adapts as our behaviour adapts.
Personal information gives us a sense of control. Personal services, in turn, provide with what is important to us. It allows us to help ourselves better than ever before. It will enable us to improve ourselves. Personalisation is actually one of the reasons why self-improvement has become an important trend in the past decade.
On top of that, we live in a society where our functional and emotional needs are increasingly fulfilled. According to the Maslow pyramid of needs, this gives us more time and resources to focus on improving ourselves. So along with the potential of personalisation, society evolved so that self-improvement becomes one of our most essential needs. When talking about his evolution, healthcare providers refer to the empowered patient. These patients are more demanding. They want more (personal) information and services. But they also want to be more involved in managing their own health. It’s about feeling empowered about one’s own health. It’s about control, and it’s about being able to improve oneself.
3. Available science
In recent decades, the cost of 'science' has dropped so much that more advanced science has become available to all of us. The most striking example is, without a doubt, that of DNA sequencing. In less than 20 years, the price to sequence DNA dropped from $2.7 billion to $300. But biometric sensors and scientific algorithms also became cheap enough to be easily integrated into consumer electronics. Today, 30% of people are running around with smart devices that increasingly provide ‘scientific’ insights into their health. We can personally seek the right health information ànd have personal health statistics to learn from. Because of this increased availability of science, people feel a sense of control over their bodies. And that’s exactly what people are seeking in their quest to improve themselves.
4. Science-baked brands
Science is cheaper and more accessible, and it has become more commonplace in our daily lives as well. We read nutritional labels on food and cosmetics. We look at the quality of our sleep, sun exposure, and walking asymmetry. We evaluate the CO2 measures in our homes. The pandemic has further reinforced this scientific obsession. Every day people now hear insights and opinions from medical or health experts. More than ever, we critically listen to and opinionate the input from these experts. Many brands have seen these above changes coming. So today, brands are trying to improve or market their products more intelligently with the help of medical experts. Because customers do not want to be bamboozled anymore by slick marketing slogans. They want products that are baked in science.
5. Personalised health solutions.
But true personalisation has entered the health scene as well. For example, Nestlé, Campbell Soup and a sushi restaurant in Japan make diet recommendations based on your DNA. And this evolution is very much anticipated. Mintel Research reported in 2019 that 42% of British consumers are indeed interested in a DNA-personalised diet. Expect such health-related solutions to become as adaptive as your personal Spotify playlist. Shiseido has a dedicated app that every day analyses the condition of your skin, your sleep quality and the environmental data (temperature, humidity, etc.). The results of the analysis allow a dedicated machine in your bathroom to dispense the optimal skincare products for that day. Similar adaptive solutions already exist for hair products, vitamins, and replacement meals as well. And what about an AI bot as a mental health companion that grows every day to become your best friend who knows you?
All of these five evolutions have one common driver: the conviction that everyone is unique. We are not the average of a group. So why should we only rely on average solutions? Why would we even solely rely on general scientific knowledge? Personalised, science-based solutions make us feel unique. So,… what’s next? Solutions based on our personal science.
We know that we aren’t always functioning at an optimal physical or mental level. We also realise that there are questions for which there seems to be no expert answer or personalised solution yet. Today, people don't leave it at this. It makes them observe and reflect on things themselves. They are looking for answers with something that sort of looks like science. But it is not science as a professional vocation. It is our own personal science.
Personal science is something that more and more people are incorporating into their own health management today. But this is a relatively recent activity. It only started seven years ago with the launch of consumer wearables with sensors. It was called the Quantified Self movement, the idea of self-tracking any kind of health information for self-awareness. However, the health information was still minimal, the data quality was doubtful, and the insights did not generate much awareness.
Devices now contain medically grade sensors and algorithms. This provides a whole new set of opportunities to explore personal health topics, questions and problems. If you are very curious about something or have a real need to understand something, you can now observe, measure, and learn from more diverse and solid data. It allows you to empirically ‘study’ causal relationships between your different variables. You won’t be answering questions about energy, sleep, or pain, but about your energy, your sleep, or your pain. Someone might discover that low-carb lunches make them more productive in the afternoon, that sleeping 8 hours gives 53% more chance of being rested than only sleeping 7 hours, that a heart rate exceeding 170 BPM while running 5km makes their joints hurt more.
This is what personal science is about. Nobody is saying (or should be saying) that they’ve discovered a way to avoid joints from hurting. In fact, generalising beyond one person is beside the point. People are looking for a personal answer to a personal question. And the validity of the ‘scientific proof’ is personal to them. The consequence of being wrong (more or less) only affects them. The risk is contained to one person. So, personal science is in many ways entirely different from professional science. But on the other hand, it can be based on systematic, continuous empirical research of one’s personal data, similar to professional science.
So what? The Healthusiasm Take
There is a field of tension in the words “personal science” that makes it feel unlikely or even unworthy. Is it really heading that way? Are people really going to value personal observations so much that they will be personally involved in them? Of course, I wouldn't write a newsletter and argue this if I didn't believe it myself. But I'm also convinced that this is something dormant in society that sooner or later will make us freak out sooner or later. That's why I think we should be aware of this. Here are three ways to prepare for it:
· Don’t ignore, acknowledge
The impact of this evolution is often ignored or downplayed by healthcare providers, life science companies and indeed scientists. Because it is not considered scientifically proven, it’s not based on clinical studies. It’s – simply said – not actual science. And that is true. Nevertheless, it can be of great value to an individual, perhaps even greater than professional science. Simply because it is based on one’s own observations and because it potentially really helps them. Possibly there might be a placebo effect in place. Fair enough. But don’t all medical treatments have a certain level of placebo effect as well?
Healthcare providers are scientifically trained people. They are not trained to deal with this. We know about the reactions when patients bring in the data collected on their (medically graded) consumer devices into a medical consultation. It’s mostly being ignored, often for many (valuable enough?) reasons. Imagine for a second if those people would bring the conclusions of their empirical observations…
Right now, I feel like the healthcare system often acts like a know-it-all. It’s what I refer to as a system-based approach and not a client-based approach. The system will tell you what to do. The system always knows better. You can figure out for yourself what kind of a clash this will entail if personal science becomes even more critical for people. I wonder how we can prepare the system for the rise of personal science? What is needed for healthcare stakeholders to not ignore this evolution? Or would they instead be ignored themselves in the end? Is this the burning platform for healthcare? Maybe it just might be.
· Teach and instruct
Obviously, there is a great danger lurking in all of this. Something we have seen a lot during this pandemic, in the words “I’ve done my research”. It’s easy to laugh that statement away. It’s a whole lot more challenging to convince them otherwise. The mere fact that so many people can no longer be convinced by professional science carries significant risk, some may say. It’s hard to disagree with that. But don't deny anymore that personal science doesn't exist. In fact, one of the most brutal realities for companies today is that a big part of their customers is ‘confidently stupid’. So, how should you deal with this? Teach them how to.
I don’t believe that personal science will go away. In fact, I am pretty sure it will radically grow in the next 3years. If I were to launch a start-up today, it would teach people how to go about personal science. People are not designed mentally to be researchers. But they do want to observe, understand and learn from their own measurements. So, let’s help them with an empirical process and numerical reasoning. Teach them to establish an outcome measure and to define what is important to count. It is impossible to sail against the current anyways. So why not find a way to go with the flow.
· Don’t underestimate and learn
Personal science may sound like a futuristic version of what many called ‘a failed Quantified Self movement’. However, it is very present today. Maybe the masses aren’t entirely ready for it yet but don’t underestimate the ones that are. There are always the early adopters. You will always find the entrepreneurial spirits who are the first movers. And yes, they exist. And they are all about personal science. Most likely, you might even have heard from them: The Biohackers.
If you are not familiar with Biohacking, I can tell you that there are many slightly different definitions. In the end, it all boils down to “giving people the power to design their own biological destiny through access to the latest biological, genetic and technological developments science has to offer.” Whatever the definition for Biohacking, it will use words like control, optimising, improving, and upgrading. Because that is really what biohackers envision: making small, incremental changes to make minor improvements in your personal health and well-being. Now, run back the five evolutions mentioned earlier. You will quickly realise how Biohacking is not only an advanced state of these evolutions. It is also a powerful manifestation of ‘personal science’.
One day, I’ll write an entire newsletter on Biohacking. For the sake of this newsletter, I want you to consider the manifestation of Biohacking, and the (social media) popularity of these biohackers, as a sign of what is yet to come. Then look a bit closer to what is being achieved there and (dare to) think where this is heading. With the expected advancement of and acceleration in science and technology, I’m pretty sure you can see a near future in which personal science will be a common activity amongst a large part of the population. Better be prepared for what is yet to come and start learning from them now. It might just be a burning platform indeed.
Personal science is a health & self-care trend that is largely flying under the radar today. With this newsletter I want to attract your attention to it, for I believe this notion of belief in "what works for me" will be super important in the years to come.