Arithmetic and Butter

On Tuesday I gave a talk called “Arithmetic and Butter” at the Quantified Self meeting in Sunnyvale. I had about 10 slides but this one mattered most:

It shows how fast I did simple arithmetic problems (e.g., 2*0, 9-6, 7*9) before and after I started eating 1/2 stick (60 g) of butter every day. The x axis covers about a year. The butter produced a long-lasting improvement of about 30 msec.

I think the hill shape of the butter function is due to running out of omega-3 in Beijing — my several-months-old flaxseed oil had gone bad, even though it had been frozen. When I returned to Berkeley and got fresh flaxseed oil, my scores improved.

This isn’t animal fat versus no animal fat. Before I was eating lots of butter, I was eating lots of pork fat. It’s one type of animal fat versus another type. Nor is it another example of modern processing = unhealthy. Compared to pork fat, butter is recent.

Most scientists think philosophy of science is irrelevant. Yet this line of research (measuring my arithmetic speed day after day, in hopes of accidental discovery) derived from a philosophy of science, which has two parts. First, scientific progress has a power-law distribution. Each time we collect data, we sample from a power-law-like distribution. Almost all samples produce tiny progress; a very tiny fraction produce great progress. Each time you collect data, in other words, it’s like buying a lottery ticket. I realized that a short easy brain-function test allowed me to buy a large number of lottery tickets at low cost. Second, we underestimate the likelihood of extreme events. Nassim Taleb has argued this about the likelihood of extreme negative events (which presumably have a power-law distribution); I’m assuming the same thing about extreme positive events (with a power-law distribution). We undervalue these lottery tickets, in other words. Perhaps all scientists hope for accidental discoveries. I seem to be the first to use a research strategy that relies on accidental discoveries.

In the graph, note that one point (actually, two) is down at 560 msec. This suggests there’s room for improvement.

23 Responses to “Arithmetic and Butter”

  1. Caleb Says:

    What type of butter is it?

    My first guess would be that you were vitamin K2(MK4) deficient, and the butter’s correcting it.

  2. Tom Says:

    Seth, have you considered alternating between pastured and grain-fed butter? (I’m not sure what the cows in China might be fed, though.)

  3. Riz Din Says:

    An ideas for taking this experiment to the next stage could include switching back to no butter and seeing if the improvements are not just due to a learning effect. Have you already looked at this Seth?

  4. Seth Roberts Says:

    Caleb, it’s Straus Creamery unsalted butter. That’s an interesting idea about K2. I did not notice an improvement when I started eating natto, which is very high in K2. But I wasn’t looking for one.

    Tom, so far I’ve only tried one brand of butter other than Straus. I didn’t notice any big difference. However, it was a small test.

    Riz Din, I haven’t yet gone back to no butter, no. I’m sure it’s not a learning effect. I’ve seen thousands of learning curves. Not one showed a sudden improvement like this.

  5. John Says:

    Supposedly, butter from grass-fed cows has more vitamins, like K2, in it. Maybe you can try with Kerry Gold Irish Butter. That stuff is pretty good. :-)

  6. G Says:

    Placebo?

  7. Seth’s blog » Blog Archive » Arithmetic and Butter « Beware of Roaming Says:

    [...] Seth’s blog » Blog Archive » Arithmetic and Butter It shows how fast I did simple arithmetic problems (e.g., 2*0, 9-6, 7*9) before and after I started eating 1/2 stick (60 g) of butter every day. The x axis covers about a year. The butter produced a long-lasting improvement of about 30 msec. via blog.sethroberts.net [...]

  8. allan Says:

    I heard that in Chinese medicine, if you have a problem with one organ, to eat that same organ from animals. So, the obvious food for better brain function is animal brains. Cow brains provide DHA at 851 mg/ 100g and EPA at 374 mg/ 100g.
    http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/beef-products/3461/2

    (btw, Vitamin K2 is found in rat brains, and will likely be also found in cow brains if someone looks for it)

    The problem with eating cow brains is that the FDA prohibits it because of the belief that it can transmit mad cow disease. (There is a secondary problem in harvesting cow brains because the most humane method of slaughter is to shoot cows in the head, thus destroying the brain). Mark Purdey, an example of an insider-outsider, believed that mad cow disease resulted from the UK’s decide to order pesticides to be sprayed on cattle.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Purdey

    So, if Purdey is correct, then the consumption of a healthy source of long chain omega 3 is prohibited by a false scientific theory.

    One hypothesis why butter might be helpful is that short chain saturated fats might be the cause. Not many foods have butyric acid (4 carbon saturated fat) or valeric (6 carbon saturated fat) acid. Wikipedia says valeric acid has a similar structure to neurotransmitter GABA. You can test coconut oil to see if the cause is 8 to 12 carbon saturated fats because coconut oil and butter have them, while lard does not. If coconut oil is unhelpful, then look at the 4 or 6 carbon fatty acids.

    http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/fats-and-oils/508/2
    http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/fats-and-oils/483/2
    http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/dairy-and-egg-products/133/2

  9. links for 2010-08-14 | Grant Watson Says:

    [...] Arithmetic and Butter Perhaps all scientists hope for accidental discoveries. I seem to be the first to use a research strategy that relies on accidental discoveries. (tags: science research methodology philosophy) [...]

  10. Seth Roberts Says:

    G, placebos cannot generate surprising results. My exploration of the drop in RT began when 4 things were unusual. Things 1-3, when tested separately, had little effect. Thing 4 (butter) seemed to have an effect.

  11. vic Says:

    have you considered that butter isn’t helping, but that pork fat was harming your performance?

  12. Stephen M (Ethesis) Says:

    G, if it was placebo, Seth would be rocketing off the charts :) — he routinely tries things which should trigger the placebo effect. If it was kicking in, given the number of times he tries things, if everything gave him a jolt …

  13. Seth Roberts Says:

    vic, pork fat made me sleep better. that’s the short answer.

  14. peter Says:

    mad cow disease arose when sh*t kicking stupid cheap farmers fed cows to cows; the carcass of one diseased animal spread the disease to all the cows that ate it and so on. it had nothing to do with pesticides.

  15. CTB Says:

    Any chance you have fasting blood glucose levels for this period? You posted recently about having levels in the prediabetic range that came down after starting daily walks…where does that experiment fit within this time frame? The brain uses glucose rather exclusively for energy needs (unless you’re starving then I think it can also use ketone bodies)…and glucose use goes up when the brain is working on problems. So if more glucose was available, it would seem logical that your brain would think better. And if your fasting glucose levels were up, your post-meal levels might have been alot higher as well…lots of potential computing power for the old noggin. It would be interesting to see your math times for 4 conditions: pork fat and old exercise regime; pork fat and walking; butter and old exercise regime; butter and walking. And have glucose levels for the whole thing.

    I’m very insulin sensitive, and can run glucose levels in the low 40′s. I don’t even try to do my taxes or balance my checkbook unless I’ve eaten something. I also participated in a diet study once where we had to decrease our daily total fat intake to 20% per day. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t sleep; felt miserable and wired…plus ended up binging like crazy. Then went to the weekly meeting and found out there were several others who had the same experiences. Yet some people did it with no problem at all.

  16. Caleb Says:

    The version of K2 in natto is M7. M4 is the type animals produce when converting K1 to K2, meaning it’s the type we seem to have evolved to optimally run on. M7 in natto probably isn’t equivalent to animal sourced M4.

    That said, Allan’s idea that it’s the Valeric acid (6 carbon sat fat) sounds like a more promising theory.

  17. Seth Roberts Says:

    CTB, that’s an interesting idea. However, my fasting blood sugar levels dropped substantially, as I described in an earlier post, long before the drop in arithmetic speed. There was no obvious change in arithmetic speed at the time of the blood sugar drop. And there was no obvious change in the blood sugar levels at the time of the arithmetic drop.

  18. G Says:

    Yeah, I see what you mean Seth.

    @ Alan: Braaains are delicious curried, though not so much on their own; too fatty; sop it up with bread, something like that; mix it with rice maybe. Can have a metallic background taste that you might find offputting.

    They could probably use the bolt-headshot method while preserving most of the brain if they made sure to aim for the brain-stem – that’s the quickest and surest kill anyway.

  19. Kit Says:

    Excuse the tangent, but I have a question that seems simple, but finding an answer is not. I bought refrigerated flax oil about a year ago, and have kept it refrigerated since then. I’ve been lax about consuming it, but have lately started to eat it everyday. I can understand how old oil would be less effective, but is it a total waste or harmful?

  20. Seth Roberts Says:

    Kit, I kept flaxseed oil frozen for a year. When I used it it wasn’t very effective. Not harmful, except that I didn’t realize its low effectiveness so it kept me from drinking better flaxseed oil

  21. Great links for the weekend! Says:

    [...] Butter.  I love it, but don’t tend to have it often anymore since it doesn’t work so well with broccoli and curry.  Or beef stews.  However, for all the butter fans out there, Mark Sisson did a great summary of the different types of butter you can get and the pros of each.  Taking this a step further, Seth Roberts (who seems to spend his life self-experimenting) did an arithmetic-related butter consumption experiment.  Fascinating how much better his arithmetic results got when he started eating butter, though eating 60g of butter a day sounds like it could be both expensive and a little sickening over time… [...]

  22. Don’t miss these great links! Says:

    [...] And following straight on from Mike’s self-experimentation is some self-experimentation that Seth Roberts has been doing.  Seth tested how quickly he performed simple arithmetic tests before and after he started eating 60g of butter each day.  Post butter consumption, he performed statistically, significantly better.  Why?  Who knows. [...]

  23. Butter and Arithmetic: How Much Butter? | Quantified Self Says:

    [...] Two years ago I discovered that butter — more precisely, substitution of butter for pork fat — made me faster. This raised the question: how much is best? For a long time I ate 60 g of butter (= 4 tablespoons = half a stick) per day. Was that optimal? I couldn’t easily eat more but I could easily eat less. [...]