Someone named Scylla waterboarded himself and provided a detailed account of what happened. “Old” self-experimentation, you could say, was doctors doing dangerous things to themselves for a short time to prove some idea that they already believed (e.g., a dentist using laughing gas as an anesthetic); “new” self-experimentation is me doing something perfectly safe for a long time to solve a problem that I have no clue how to solve. What Scylla did is between the two. Short duration, not completely safe, done to find out if waterboarding is torture or not. Scylla had no strong opinion about this when he started.

Before he got to using saran wrap it wasn’t particularly bad. Here’s what happened with saran wrap:

The idea is that you wrap saran wrap around the mouth in several layers, and poke a hole in the mouth area, and then waterboard away. . . . So far I would categorize waterboarding as simply unpleasant rather than torture, but I’ve come this far so I might as well go on. . . It took me ten minutes to recover my senses once I tried this. I was shuddering in a corner, convinced I narrowly escaped killing myself.

Here’s what happened:

The water fills the hole in the saran wrap so that there is either water or vacuum in your mouth. The water pours into your sinuses and throat. You struggle to expel water periodically by building enough pressure in your lungs. With the saran wrap though each time I expelled water, I was able to draw in less air. Finally the lungs can no longer expel water and you begin to draw it up into your respiratory tract.

It seems that there is a point that is hardwired in us. When we draw water into our respiratory tract to this point we are no longer in control. All hell breaks loose. Instinct tells us we are dying.

I have never been more panicked in my whole life. Once your lungs are empty and collapsed and they start to draw fluid it is simply all over. You [b]know[/b] you are dead and it’s too late. Involuntary and total panic.

There is absolutely nothing you can do about it. It would be like telling you not to blink while I stuck a hot needle in your eye. . .
I never felt anything like it, and this was self-inflicted with a watering can, where I was in total control and never in any danger. And I understood.

Waterboarding gets you to the point where you draw water up your respiratory tract triggering the drowning reflex.

This shows something non-obvious: We are hard-wired to avoid drowning and like all good safety systems, the system kicks in well before damage occurs.

For such a system to evolve, humans must have spent a lot of time in water deep enough to drown in. We don’t now, of course. The sheer fact of Scylla’s post — the fact that waterboarding is torture isn’t obvious — shows this.

All this — Scylla’s initial ignorance, what he experienced and concluded — is consistent with the aquatic ape theory of human evolution and inconsistent with alternatives to that theory (e.g., the savannah theory), which assume no long aquatic phase. Belief that the aquatic ape theory was probably true was one reason I started omega-3 self-experimentation, which led to the discovery of very clear experimental effects.

This interests me not only because of what it says about human evolution — to me, it’s substantial new evidence for the aquatic ape theory — but also for what it says about science. Scylla has no scientific credentials (I assume). His report wasn’t peer-reviewed. It wasn’t quantitative. It wasn’t long. It was closer to an anecdote than a conventional experiment (where you compare two conditions). He wasn’t trying to test any theory. Yet it provided helpful new info on a major scientific question (human evolution), which is very hard to do.