Science in Action: Mysterious Mental Improvement (part 4)

I blogged earlier how I suddenly got better at an arithmetic task. The apparent causes of the improvement were butter and standing. I’m not sure this is right; I will do more tests.

While I was trying to figure out the cause something even more extreme happened:

2010-03-22 even more anomalous resultsNotice the last two points. The previous anomaly was slightly below 600 msec. The new one is close to 550 msec. After observing it, I repeated the test 20 minutes later and got essentially the same result.

I’m blown away. I’ve been doing tests like this — simple measures of mental function — for about two years. Nothing like this happened during those two years.

My scores on this particular test averaged about 640 msec. Sometimes they’d be lower (as low as 610) but I had no idea why. The average stayed around 640. Now, within days, the average goes down to about 600 (presumably because I was eating butter regularly) and then down to almost 550. In other words, that 640 could be improved almost 20%! The improvement has nothing to do with practice; I was extremely well-practiced on this task. (And practice doesn’t produce such a sudden improvement.)

This is something we care deeply about — how well our brains work. Unless I’m a lot worse at arithmetic than everyone else, this suggests that for many people great improvement is possible. In an astonishingly small way. (I didn’t make any big changes during this time.) In a week.

23 Responses to “Science in Action: Mysterious Mental Improvement (part 4)”

  1. Margaret Says:

    I’ve been following this series and am curious about a couple things that I don’t think you’ve explained (I could have missed it somewhere). How do you decide when to take the test? Is it at least somewhat at random? When you take the test do you also record covariates of interest (like in this case, animal fat consumption, exercise or the mat thingy)?

  2. seth Says:

    Thanks for your questions, Margaret.

    When do I take the test? Usually once per day, whenever I want. I don’t do the test if I’d obviously do badly. There’s a small effect of time of day, for which I can correct.

    Do I record covariates? I record a few covariates of interest, but the current results of interest (this anomaly and the one last week) don’t make use of those recordings. I can remember what was unusual recently — perhaps 4 things — and then test one by one those unusual things to see which made a difference. If I get an unusual result at Monday 3 pm and my results the previous day at 7 pm were normal, it’s easy to remember, without writing anything down, what was unusual between 7 pm Sunday and 3 pm Monday.

  3. 1 Says:

    This is groundbreaking work! Seth is really great at being aware of himself and his ideas are all original. This blog has changed my life. I have read it since its beginning. I will share more of these ideas I read here with my customers at UC Berkeley! I have finally decided to give the book, SHANGRI LA DIET to the chair of the nutrition dept at Berkeley, who is a friendly customer of mine. I think now is a good time.

  4. Alex Chernavsky Says:

    Seth, can you give any pointers to people who want to try similar experiments themselves? In particular, where can we get the software that does things like tests your memory, reaction time, arithmetic ability, etc.? I could probably write it myself, but no sense in re-inventing the wheel.

  5. seth Says:

    Alex, thanks for your interest. I will post a description of the task I used. My functions are written in R. You would need to know R to use them.

  6. q Says:

    yes, that would be informative. a video would be informative.

  7. John Says:

    I’m as fond of animal fat and standing as much as the next guy, but how do you make sure you just aren’t getting better at math from doing it over time? That’s not a judgement, just an honest question…

  8. seth Says:

    John, improvement due to practice long ago levelled off.

  9. The Data Driven Life « John Suhar Says:

    [...] Roberts told me about his own method of measuring mental changes, a quick test he programmed on his computer that involves 32 easy arithmetic problems. The test takes about three minutes, and he has found that it can detect small changes in cognitive performance. He has used his self-tracking system to adjust his diet, learning that three tablespoons daily of flaxseed oil reliably decreases the amount of time it takes him to do math. Consuming a lot of butter also seems to have a good effect. [...]

  10. dylan Says:

    hey seth,

    i’m an R user. can you send me your functions please?

    thanks!

  11. seth Says:

    dylan, I have posted the functions under the category “R code”.

  12. Tommy Schmitz Says:

    Seth,

    Interesting observation about butter, and it got me perusing some of your other posts. At one point a pop-up question (an ad, perhaps) appeared asking if I were aware of Lank o Lakes spreadable butter with canola oil. Well, a few days ago we had our own weird (and off-topic) observation about butter. My girlfriend was cooking with both margarine and butter. Two spoonfuls of each were on the kitchen counter, inches apart, when a line of ants approached the spoons. Hundreds. They all went for the margarine. Not a single one approached the butter. Not to monkey with the Land o Lakes marketing strategy, but math-test mileage may vary for the ants. – Tommy.

  13. Dan Says:

    Seth, my family is a strong believer in the benefits of butter. Glad to see your experiments confirm that.

    @TommySchmitz got me thinking about the effects of different kinds of butter. Seth, have you worked on anything like that? I was specifically thinking about organic butter and butter from cows who have no antibiotics and are grass fed … things like that.

    I just found your writings today but am going to look more closely into your thoughts. Thanks.

  14. Mike P Says:

    Hi Seth,

    It is interesting to me that you so quickly dismiss the effects of practice and time. My experience as a juggler (as well as the admittedly anecdotal experience of my juggling friends) does not bear out what seem to be the underlying assumptions[1]. In particular there is the phenomenon of the “click”, a sudden increase in the ability to perform a certain trick or maintain a pattern, usually accompanied by a sense of increased understanding or an improved ability to feel what is going on or even a sense of time slowing down. These clicks sometimes happen after long, regular periods of practice and sometimes even when returning to a skill after taking a break of a month or two. Often progress is marked by several clicks, and while steady progress does occur sometimes (typically when improvement is a matter of increased endurance or speed), this seems to be the exception rather than the rule. Following a click, there is rarely complete regression to a previous level of competency, even after a prolonged lapse, a little rustiness notwithstanding.

    Now I’ll admit, I was not paying close attention to my diet or habits when I experienced my most recent clicks (nor indeed the less recent ones), so it is possible that they were more likely to happen when I consumed a greater than usual amount of butter or fish oil. And that would indeed be interesting. I would suggest, though, that one has to be extremely careful when drawing conclusions from such a limited set of data, especially when we have so little knowledge about how the brain’s abilities change over time absent the effects of dietary changes.

    [1] To wit, that skill in a given area improves with practice in a more or less continuous way and tends to asymptotically approach a ceiling. Please correct me if I’m misinterpreting.

  15. seth Says:

    Mike P, you write: “we have so little knowledge about how the brain’s abilities change over time absent the effects of dietary changes.” Take a look at the experimental psychology literature. You will find thousands of studies that measured “how the brain’s abilities change over time absent the effect of dietary changes.”

  16. Lisa Says:

    It would be wonderful if someone could create a simple Windows application for your test.

    Those of us who aren’t programmers could definitely benefit from this kind of cognitive check-up! It would be especially helpful for determining how well certain medications are working, and if they’re throwing us off.

  17. RJB Boston Says:

    Why do you suppose butter improves your arithmetic abilities? Are the French, who typically eat a lot more butter than most, better on average at arithmetic? or is this simply a case of your personal physiology and the way your biochemistry is altered with butter?

  18. seth Says:

    RJB Boston, I think butter helps because our brains need certain fats to work their best. And my diet wasn’t supplying enough of them. Butter has the missing fat or fats. I believe this effect isn’t restricted to me, for four reasons. 1. the brain is more than half fat. 2. As far as I know, everyone thinks fat tastes good — and this reflects an underlying need, I’m sure, just the way we like salt reflects an underlying need. 3. Long ago, people ate lots of animal fat. 4. There are cultural traditions that animal fat is “brain food”.

  19. Phil E Says:

    Wow, you may be the only person in western society not getting enough dairy fat!

  20. Self-Tracking is the Future « The Floating Library Says:

    [...] Roberts told me about his own method of measuring mental changes, a quick test he programmed on his computer that involves 32 easy arithmetic problems. The test takes about three minutes, and he has found that it can detect small changes in cognitive performance. He has used his self-tracking system to adjust his diet, learning that three tablespoons daily of flaxseed oil reliably decreases the amount of time it takes him to do math. Consuming a lot of butter also seems to have a good effect. [...]

  21. Yet another self tracker Says:

    Inspired by your example, I’ve started tracking myself in a similar way. I’ve decided to blog the experiment over at yast.posterous.com, and just posted the first five days worth of data.

  22. Ernestine Says:

    http://chiotsrun.com/2009/01/26/cinderella-pumpkin-rouge-vif-detampes/comment-page-1/#comment-20838

  23. Seth Roberts Says:

    how is this relevant?