Laboratory of the Self: Description and Syllabus

Laboratory of the Self
Quinn Norton
Monday, 2:30pm – 5:25pm
Location: Somewhere at ITP…
Office Hours: Usually Tuesday, 2-3

Course Description

This course will explore the relationship between the body and the self, both in theory and in hands-on application. We’ll begin by learning the basic physiology that links perception to memory and action. How does your mind and body react when you get a coffee, or see a text on your phone? How do you get from there to drinking the coffee or replying to a friend? The process of perception, cognition, and action underlies how we relate to the world, and ultimately, who we believe we are.
The first half of the class culminates in a midterm self-monitoring project. Examples of projects include monitoring heart rates, glucose levels, or music and mood. Students will report on what the data they’ve collected tells them about their body and their understanding of their individual self.
The second half of the class examines the history and state-of-the-art of human modification, from both a technical perspective, and how the practice of body modification has changed society. We’ll discuss ancient changes, and the latest and greatest cybernetic advances, along with bio-ethics and a bit of cyborgian philosophy. For the final projects, students will engage in a self modification project, which will be presented at the end of the term. By the end of the class the student will have a basic understanding how their own perceptions and memory are formed, how this gives rise to their sense of self– and how to change it.


There will be examples, but I will be looking for students to designs projects that are really about themselves. Technical complexity takes a backseat; design for personal insight. You will have a couple weeks to think of ideas, and the chance to discuss them in class, or with me privately.
Both the monitoring and modification projects have the option of privacy and can be presented only to myself if they cover sensitive material.


Missing class will affect your grade. If you’re ill, please stay home, but consider Skyping in. If you know you will have to miss a session let me know in advance.


projects: 60%,
class participation 20%,
reading response 20%.

Class blog

We will have a blog as a place for people to share their thoughts on the reading and their projects publicly. Blogging is optional for those wishing to work more privately. But reading the blog is required.

Reading and Reading Response

Reading will be a mix of offline and print. You must email me or post to the class blog a brief response after every reading. Not required for the coloring book, though I will run though quick verbal checks on it in class.


Week One: The Only Animal That has to Find Itself

Introductions to the topic, and each other, & setting up the first project.
A Colorful Introduction to the Anatomy of the Human Brain: A Brain and Psychology Coloring Book, chapters one, two, three
Reinventing Ourselves, Andy Clark

Week Two: The Substrate of Sensory-Motor Experience, part 1

Anatomy of the Neuron, Sympathetic and Parasympathetic responses, Ramon Y Cajal and the Neuron Doctrine, Basics of the physiology of sense, Styles of the major neurotransmitters, A little on how psychoactive drugs work, Neurological and psychological homeostasis, Addiction.
A Colorful Introduction to the Anatomy of the Human Brain: A Brain and Psychology Coloring Book, chapters seven, eight, nine
Except of Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust
A Sixth Sense for a Wired World, Quinn Norton

Week Three: The Substrate of Sensory-Motor Experience, part 2

Discuss the reading responses, lobes and locations, thalamus: the great receptionist in our heads, describing the sensory-motor loop,  the various homunculi, the homunculi we’re missing, our six and seventh sense, The strange path of the olfactory bulb, the stranger case of toxoplasmosis, comparative brains across evolution, the corpus collosum, Alien Hand syndrome, grey vs white matter, association areas, TMS, the pain circuit and P, fun with P, why I hate the term ‘lizard brain’, finalizing quantitative self projects.
A Colorful Introduction to the Anatomy of the Human Brain: A Brain and Psychology Coloring Book, chapters ten, eleven, twelve
Better Than Well: The perfect voice, Carl Elliott

Week Four: The Substrate of Sensory-Motor Experience, part 3

Memory formation, the reliability of memory, dreams as a paradigm for the problems of neuroscience, EMDR, Association, Emotion and Motivation,CBT, Gourmand’s syndrome, Demyelination (MS), Spinal response variation in mammals, circadian rhythms, sleep in mood and memory, No talking but singing, inner speech, emotions.
A Colorful Introduction to the Anatomy of the Human Brain: A Brain and Psychology Coloring Book, chapter four
‪Dr. Robert M. Sapolsky – Stress, Neurodegeneration And Individual Differences‬ (Optional)
Sixth Meditation, Rene Descartes
“I sing the body electric” Walt Whitman
I have not the words, Quinn Norton

Week Five: The History of Our Selves

Dualism vs materialism, Whitman v Descartes cage match, the drift of childrearing, the disruption of feminism, gender in the modern age vs gender in history.

Better Than Well, Chapter 2: The True Self
Oxford Uehiro Center: Neuropunditry
“Bring them on, the power plants”, Dale Pendell

Week Six: Self monitoring projects + More History of the Self

Social construction of self, history and perspectives on depression, bipolar, and schizophrenia, authenticity as moral right, fMRI studies, Class presentations and discussion, setting up the second project

Becoming Dragon, Micha Cárdenas
Chapter 5, Better than well

Week Seven: Self monitoring projects

Midterm presentations
Coffee and tea chapters from Pharmako/Dynamis, Section Excitantia by Dale Pendell
Surviving in an Alien Environment: Human + Christ as Medieval Natural-Born Cyborg

Week Eight: History of modification

How we’ve modified ourselves, and the shifting baseline of wellness and rights. Caffeine, tobacco, our many camp followers, literacy and memory, vaccination.
Nature: Professor’s little helper
If steroids are cheating, why isn’t LASIK? William Saletan
The Brain on the Stand, Jeffrey Rosen

Week Nine: Bioethics of Enhancement

Policies that affect how we choose to modify, neurolaw and its problems, sports and its triumphs, cognitive enhancers and academia, the social role of medicalization, the redefinition of well.
Kanye West, Media Cyborg, Robin Sloan
The Body Without Memory: An Interview with Stelarc, Mark Fernandes

Week Ten: High Weirdness Pt 1: Body modders, artists, drugs and DIY + Media and Politics

The artists, body modders, and edge cases, modern primitives, portrayal of enhancement in the media
Better than Well, Chap. 9, Carl Elliott
Transhumanism, Francis Fukuyama

Week Eleven: High Weirdness Pt 2: Medical Frontiers

Research on brain computer interface, drug delivery, implantables, optogenetics, gene therapy, transhumanists, extropians
Better than Well, Conclusion, The tyranny of happiness, Carl Elliott

Week Twelve: Self modification projects

Class presentations and discussion