Becoming Our Own Guinea Pigs

You might be aware about strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hide or, if not, of how the initially good intentions of a “respectable” scientist can go disastrously wrong when naively acting as their own guinea pigs . In Robert Louis Steven’s cautionary tale, we are enlightened to the ill consequences that arise when a respectable doctor (Dr Jekyll) is transformed into a mysteriously evil character (Dr Hyde) upon self-experimenting with his own peculiar concoction.

Whilst this infamous case is also recognised for the growing hype and sham understanding of split personality disorder, it also unveils some of the debatably disreputable and unethical practices that are still conducted by the many eager scientists of today; including well known psychology experts. Put more plainly, despite the pursuit of more knowledge often being restrained due to the strong ethical BPS standards of the 21st century, this barrier is still often sidestepped when curious scientists choose to  be their own guinea pigs, pop their own pills, and become subjects of their own matter.

Interestingly, such circumstances are becoming ever more prevalent with an increased motivation for psychological practitioners to place themselves in their clients own shoes by trying to encounter their same symptoms and phenomenological experiences as those with a mental illness for instance. 

Apart from putting oneself at risk of harm, especially when experiments involve the ingestion of addictive substances with adverse side effects, self-experiments cannot overcome the obstacle of being able to conduct a double blind study, since the experimenter already knows that there is no control or placebo.

Likewise, whilst something could also be said about the experimenter expecting, or even wanting, a certain experience, what about the possible outcomes or claims that might result from the cognitive dissonance after having gone through a great deal of effort or an unpleasant encounter during self-experimentation? For example, if ingesting a certain psychoactive drug results in a collection of obnoxious symptoms, wouldn’t the experimenter feel even more inclined to advocate the long term beneficial or ill effects in a bias manner?

This brief cautionary note is not to say that self-experimentation is wholly unjustified or “bad”, as the history of science is literally littered with case of examples where self-experimentation has provided the world with revolutionary insight and eventual treatments for a number of previously incurable or extraordinary physical and mental health conditions.

Flitting back tothe 18th Century, Friedrich Wilhelm Sertürner, a German Chemist, was the first to isolate what he thought was the key active ingredient in opium (a sedative substance). After undertaking a series of procedures to form crystals of the active ingredient, of which he called morphine (after Morpheus the Greek god of dreams), he experimented with several stray dogs and arranged for himself and three close friends to ingest a dose equal to 90 milligrams (10 times the limit recommended today).

Although the dogs’ deaths were the outcome of his first trial experiments, with Sertürner and his companions experiencing strange and bewildering side effects due to overdosing, the crystal morphine he created is still the leading pain relief drug used today. Other daring cases also include Henry Head’s attempts to cut the nerves in his own arm in order to study the generation of pain, and other scientist’s endured periods of self-seclusion to experience the consequences of prolonged social isolation.

Heading over to psychology, there is a vast tradition of experimental psychologists (including one of the founders Wilhelm Wundt himself), who developed the self-experimental fashion of introspection. In retrospect, we might even suggest that the domain of psychology would not exist in its grandeur of today if it wasn’t for the pursuit to study one’s own conscious (and unconscious) mind.

In the cognitive psychology domain, the infamous German Psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus also conducted a series of self-experiments to further understand the phenomenon of memory and forgetting.  Looking into the field of vision, George Stratton, a psychologist at the University of California, also investigated the experiences and consequences that would occur when wearing a pair of goggles that allowed him to view the world (perhaps dangerously so) upside down.

Although crossing roads in the face of oncoming traffic in such circumstances was probably an inevitable challenge, Stratton was the first to exemplify that the brain could eventually “learn” to adapt to visual information. However, such revolutionary outcomes, debatably, do not completely outweigh the negative implications of self-experimentation, with these pursuits sometimes even involving a psychologists’ family members, including their own children!

In modern times, many psychologists are alternatively using self-experimentation to gain insight into the experiences of individuals with mental health problems, since no technological advances to date can objectively address these phenomenological issues. For example, Peter Kinderman, a clinical psychologist from Liverpool University, has recently embarked on a venture that involves taking the drug chlorpromazine (normally used in the treatment of Schizophrenia and  Psychosis) in order to see what will happen and what it is like for patients with mental health conditions using meds…. Although Kinderman has outlined that he will not be undertaking any tasks (such as driving) during “his” experiment, he will still be doing this in a foreign country whilst attending a conference; even after being forewarned against these activities by family members and several of his academic colleagues due to the drug’s serious side effects.

A recent comment from an individual who is currently using chlorprozamine also mentinoed that Kinderman is unlikely to gain insight in to the long-term implications of chlorprozamine, since any side effects experienced will be inevitable of most medicinal drugs’ temporary influences. In addition, another comment also touched upon the concern that Kinderman will not be able to fully comprehend the experiences of chlorprozamine, as his ability to break away from the “real world” when taking them will protect him from the general difficulties that would otherwise be encountered when undertaking tasks such as driving or looking after a family for instance. However, in Kinderman’s defence, his ambition to be able to relate to patients better and grow in his expertise as a clinical psychologist is likely to be at the heart of his ambitions in this scenario. You can follow Kinderman’s self experiment on his online blog.

For other psychologists however, we might need to question the real motives that lie beneath the need to comprehend the “real” patient experience. If we really wanted to empathise more with our clients, or understand a wider group of individuals experiences of a certain mental illness, shouldn’t their own accounts be informative and illustrative enough? After all, if we honestly value that each individual’s experience is real and unique in its own right, on what grounds, then, do psychologists really need to generate their own stamp of approval. Do we always have to see and feel to believe? Do we want to develop a culture where, to reinstate the past, experiences of poor mental health need to be personally verified by someone of a higher order?

As another inquiry into self-experimentation with psychoactive drugs, wouldn’t such an undertaking be deficient of a true understanding about how each person’s symptoms are encountered amongst the everyday challenges that might not be personally familiar to the self-experimenting practitioner. For example, alike to the previous comment on Kinderman’s pursuits, will psychologists, or any other scientist, really undertake their self-experiments when facing the everyday obstacles of driving, managing family and work commitments, or coping with unrelated symptoms of an additional mental or physical illness? From a wider perspective, also questionable is the novelty of being able to place oneself in the shoes of individuals with relatively poor socioeconomic status, or members of ethnic minority groups.

Unfortunately, such circumstances and cultural attributes cannot be fully unpicked or simplified by one experimenter who is naively trying to place their own isolated experience in the bracket of a “one size fits all” model. Furthermore, in whatever way the practitioner’s experience is retold, their personal stories and perspectives shouldn’t necessarily be deemed as any more valid than that of the individuals they are supposedly trying to advocate for. Nonetheless, for vulnerable individuals who have no way of actually communicating their views, then perhaps self-experimentation could be considered as a unique form of advocacy.

From a personal perspective, I have to be honest about my own initial concerns around self-experimentation. In particular, I wonder what would happen if a trend was set where different psychologists tried to take their understanding of certain mental illnesses further by becoming an addict themselves in the case of alcohol or heroin addiction. Likewise, if I was a patient with Anorexia Nervosa, would I really want my therapist to place themselves on a starvation diet to understand my drained sense of vitality and obsessive thoughts around food? Whilst we might gain some empathy in doing so, this trend might alternatively spark something a little darker. For example, whilst greater approval for self-experimentation might initially start with the ingestion of minimally-harmful drugs, the wider influence of this behaviour upon more daring members of the academic community might induce an unrelenting competiveness to undertake more dangerous missions; leading to some “Dare devil” competitions amongst psychologists.

Without harping on, it is hopefully not difficult to see how the (egotistical) motives behind self-experimentation could draw us even further away from a patient’s or the wider public’s real needs. Moreover, we could argue that taking psychoactive substances, that would usually be withheld from the general population, is ultimately an abuse of medical or academic power, with no true intended benefit for others since such information cannot be accurately generalised. Thus, we might question whether the need to self-experiment is predominantly driven by personal interest and a motive to be recognised as someone who “thinks” outside the ethically bound box of psychology (and into the guinea pig hutch).

Ultimately, I feel that being human and skilled enough to simply listen and comprehend other individuals’ phenomenological encounters within the dynamic context of their own unique lives should be enough for now.  Nevertheless, whilst this personal view is unlikely to be translatable to the medical field of drug development, it is diminutive in comparison to the great achievements of the many scientists who took the genuine risks for the overall good of mankind, without which we might not, as an academic domain or person, be here today. Out of my own ignorance, I might also be dismissing a magnificent opportunity for academics to raise the profile of psychology even further, and even save lives along the way. On the whole, all I can add on this unfolding story is a note of caution. Before we decide to undertake any form of self-experiment, let us not get lost in the excitement of our ambitions, or just simply question the physical and psychological dangers, but also the real underlying motives that make us want to be treated as another daring scientist’s guinea pig….

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