The Human Body Is Too Complex For Easy Fixes

Often going hand in hand with efforts to quantify the body and behaviors through all manners of technology, this hacking ethos relies on the idea that if people can just collect more data to better understand themselves, perhaps they can engineer themselves to perfection. We can hack our technologies, and even our societies, so why not ourselves?

Alas, things are not so straightforward. While there are many similarities between the biological and the computational, biological systems are complex on an entirely different level. They have evolved over millions of years, with a great deal of feedback and a mind-bogglingly large number of interacting components. And, in many ways, they’re already well-tuned and optimized.

Biology is a game of trade-offs. Any change in an interconnected system can yield both positives and negatives. Ways around sleep, for instance, come with costs. Taken to their extreme, practices like polyphasic sleep can take a month of adapting before you stop feeling like a zombie, and can severely mess with your social life. Caffeine, which more than 50 percent of Americans consume daily in coffee, is no panacea. Coffee makes you feel awake, but it can make you jittery, with the occasional sensation of your eyes bugging out from your skull. It makes you poop. It can even cause pretty strong symptoms during caffeine withdrawal, like headaches or irritability.

When it comes to hacker types parachuting into biology, especially for the purpose of improving the human body, failing to account for the inherent complexity of biology can mean failing to recognize that a messy system might not be easily modified in the way they want or expect. Fasting—which is often associated with increasing longevity—or some chemical of the week, whether hyped for improving concentration or weight loss, might help, but approaches like these are often feeble attempts to fit a highly nonlinear system with a single line.

Moreover, it’s hard to truly know what the many apparently redundant systems within our bodies have been optimized for. One alternative approach to handling all of this biological complexity is to use general rules of thumb. Comparatively simple guidelines have sometimes been passed down from generation to generation, such as adhering to traditional diets like the Mediterranean or Japanese. In one study, four basic lifestyle factors—smoking status, BMI, diet, and physical activity—were found to reduce the onset of major chronic diseases, including cancer and diabetes, by a massive amount. This simple, moderate kind of approach is also seen in the elegant dictum of the food journalist Michael Pollan, who advises, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” or the haiku for how to run a fast marathon, from the Mayo Clinic anesthesiologist Michael Joyner: “Run a lot of miles / Some faster than your race pace / Rest once in a while.”

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