We Are Our Own Typos


Everyone seems to be writing about the recently announced effort by Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and JP Morgan Chase to attack their employee health costs. It is certainly newsworthy, and I am generally interested in whatever Amazon may do in healthcare.

They may very well have some success with this effort, but until I read a positive story about employee working conditions at Amazon, I’m going to be skeptical that any disruption in healthcare they accomplish with it is something that I shouldn’t be worried about.

So, instead, I’m going to write about why we can’t recognize our own typos, and what that means for our health.

As Wired summarized the problem a few years ago: “The reason we don’t see our own typos is because what we see on the screen is competing with the version that exists in our heads.” They go on to explain that one of the great skills of our big brains is that we build mental maps of the world, but those maps are not always faithful to the actual world.

As psychologist Tom Stafford explained: “We don’t catch every detail, we’re not like computers or NSA databases. Rather, we take in sensory information and combine it with what we expect, and we extract meaning.”

Thus, typos.

Unfortunately, the same is often true with how we view our health. We don’t think we’re as overweight as we are. We think we get more exercise than we do. We think our nutrition is better than it is. Overall, we think we’re in better health than we probably are.

Over the past few decades, the U.S. has been suffering “epidemics” of obesity, diabetes, asthma, and allergies, to name a few. Over half of adults now have one or more chronic conditions. Yet two-thirds of us still report being in good or excellent health, virtually unchanged for at least the last twenty years.

Something doesn’t jibe.

For many years, researchers and physicians have viewed self-reported health status as a strong indicator of our health, with some even calling for it to be a new vital sign. More recent research confirms that, well, it may not be so reliable after all — and is especially problematic for the sub-populations for whom one would like a more accurate measure.

Plus, as the Pew Research Center found, no matter how old we get, we think of “being old” as something that happens at a later age. We think of ourselves as younger than we are, and the gap between our actual age and how old we feel grows as we age.

When it comes to our health, most of us think we are a younger, healthier person. That may help explain why many of us do not take better care of our actual selves.

But what about all of those people who belong to a gym, some 57 million of us? The number has almost doubled from 2000 to 2016. What about the number of people running races, some 17 million of us? That number has more than tripled since 1990. What about all those sales of fitness tracking devices like Fitbits (25 million!) or Apple Watches (12 million, with 6 million in 4Q 2017 alone)?

Impressive, but all those may be more due to their having become social activities at least as much as fitness ones. I.e. it’s not that fitness efforts are driving athleisure sales, but vice-versa. We may not be any healthier but we want to look good anyway.

Technology is going to make this even easier. Unfortunately.

Imagine, if you will, the augmented reality (AR) app that doesn’t just put a funny face on you or your friends, but that makes you look the way you think you look. Or would like to look. You could walk around with your smart glasses and whenever you see your reflection, it’d be the ideal you.

Better yet, anyone else with smart glasses and the right app could see the same. You could all walk around in a shared augmented reality that happily makes you each look younger, healthier, and better looking. No wonder Intel thinks smart glasses are going to be big.

Virtual reality (VR) could take better versions of ourselves even further. Your avatar could be any “you” that you wanted. Or anyone, really. Taller, stronger, fitter, better looking.

Advances in haptics are making touch more realistic in VR. It’s already being used for those with chronic pain or mental health issues, and to help people with missing limbs. The VR experience will get even more immersive.

It’s all-too-easy to see a future in which our VR selves not only look but actually feel better than our real selves.

Maybe that is OK. Perhaps we’re all going to live in VR anyway (although it didn’t work out so well in The Matrix). Or perhaps — just perhaps — our AR/VR self will help remind us of the self we could still be.

There is some evidence that having poor perceived health has somewhat of a snowballing effect, causing people to limit their activities and thus further their declines. Any avenue that helps people feel better about themselves could help combat that. .

Then again, why work on getting our real selves healthier when it will be so much easier to just jump into VR?

I’m many years past my twenty-five-year-old self, when I could eat anything I wanted, run as long as I wanted, stay up as late as I wanted, and be full of energy all day.

Yet that is the me I still have a mental map of, and the me about whom I still often make health decisions.

That me is my typo.

The technology to imagine better versions of ourselves is not going away. It’s only going to get more powerful. Our ability to mentally map better versions of ourselves is not going away. We have a long evolutionary history that made it part of how we survive.

The question will be, can we use the technology to help us make more accurate mental maps of ourselves, so that we can figure out how to improve our health?

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