Brain Test Phenomenology: Bad Beijing Restaurant?

2014-02-25 bad restaurant maybe

This graph shows recent results from the test I used to track my brain function. The test is a choice reaction task done on my laptop: see a digit (e.g.,”2″), press the corresponding key as fast as possible. The x axis shows the time of the test. The ticks (“Sat”, etc.) mark the beginning of the associated days. The y axis shows the average percentile of the reaction times. Higher percentile = faster. (Let me explain what “percentile” means: Each reaction time is compared to earlier reaction times with the same stimulus, and its percentile is computed. For example, a percentile of 60 means that 60% of previous responses were slower.) An average of 60 is quite good and 40 is quite bad. I usually do two tests per day, one right after the other, in the late afternoon (e.g., 4:30 pm).

On Friday and Saturday, my scores were close to normal. On Sunday afternoon, however, my scores were much worse than usual; the average score was about 15. A score that low might happen once per year. The next day (Monday) I tested more often than usual — both morning and afternoon — and my scores gradually returned to normal. On Tuesday I also tested both morning and afternoon. My scores were ordinary the whole time. This showed that the improvement Monday morning was not normal.

What happened Sunday? I am pretty sure the problem is my lunch at a middle-cost noodle restaurant whose English name is Flying Noodle. It is close to the Tsinghua campus but I’d only been there once before (and eaten almost nothing that time). On Sunday I had a small pickled vegetable dish and an ordinary-sized plate of fried eggs and tomatoes. I suspect the problem is the oil used to cook the egg and tomato. It might have been soybean, corn, sunflower or peanut oil, all high in omega-6. (There are also complaints about reuse of cooking oil.) As I entered the restaurant, I worried about the oil, but also thought who really knows? By the time of my brain test, I had forgotten my concern.

A friend was with me. She ate different dishes. She found that her scores on a iPhone game she often plays, which requires fast reactions, were suddenly and mysteriously worse after the lunch. Then, in about a day, they recovered.

This interests me in several ways:

1. New phenomenology. In this example and my earlier tofu results (a piece of fermented tofu reduced my brain score for two days), I noticed something never noticed before: Sharp changes (bad) in brain function. Fortunately I quickly recovered. Nobody knew this happened. It’s like looking through a microscope or telescope for the first time, but with much more relevance to everyday concerns.

2. Comparison with Super Size Me, a 2004 documentary by Morgan Spurlock, which argued that McDonald’s food was unhealthy. Spurlock ate only McDonald’s food for 30 days. Realism: Spurlock ate far more McDonald’s food than anyone would normally eat; I ate one meal. Information value: Spurlock’s test was so unrealistic and his diet so plainly unhealthy that I doubt the results — Spurlock’s health got worse, he gained weight — have any implications for the rest of us. In contrast, I find my results horrifying. Bias: Spurlock was obviously biased against McDonald’s before he started. I thought favorably of the Flying Noodle — that’s why I went there. Cost: My data cost essentially nothing, Spurlock’s movie cost $65,000, not to mention the damage to Spurlock’s health. Recovery time: Spurlock took 14 months to lose the weight he gained. I recovered in a day. Repeatability: My test is easy to repeat, Spurlock’s very difficult.

3. Public health disaster? China has a very high rate of diabetes, for unknown reasons. Chinese teenagers and college students have much worse (inflamed) skin than I see in other countries. Old people in China look much worse than old people in Japan. Could heavy use of high-omega-6 cooking oil be a big reason?

4. Where were authorities? We expect our government — in combination with academia — to protect us against dangerous chemicals in our environment. If I’m right about the cause of my low score, that didn’t happen here. Cooking oil is the opposite of a rare food. If ordinary amounts of a common cooking oil did cause these results, it suggests something is seriously wrong with the regulatory system. A big argument for personal science — and brain tracking in particular — is that you monitor exactly the environment to which you are exposed in exactly the genetic context you care about (yours).

19 Responses to “Brain Test Phenomenology: Bad Beijing Restaurant?”

  1. dearieme Says:

    Ahoy, Seth – more from The Old England Journal of Medicine.

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2570081/Why-fatter-These-graphs-explain-sugar-fruit-juice-XXX-blame.html

  2. Sidney Phillips Says:

    Interesting. That’s why these days I really dislike eating out. No matter the cost of the restaurant you know the restaurant will be using the cheapest ingredients possible, especially when it comes to oils. It is just not economically feasible for restaurants to not re-use oils. Maybe the good ones re-use the oil just a few times, who knows though. Re-using oil after frying is not healthy at all.

    I had similar results as yours recently. I’ve been on a strict gluten and dairy free diet with great results. Recenly my parents visited me and brought some take out from an Indian restaurant. Even though I avoided eating anything with gluten and dairy, the next day I felt off. I use the Quantified Mind website to track my reaction times and they were noticeably slower. I attributed the bad results to the cheap oil (soybean, corn, canola?) the restaurant must have used. Never again.

  3. Paul N Says:

    I wonder if there might also be something at play with MSG?
    I know several people who feel sick after eating foods -often asian restaurant foods – containing MSG. Maybe that restaurant uses it?

    In any case, would probably be a simple one to test, by spiking a home prepared meal with some MSG and see what your scores do.

    Makes me wonder about doing the same with aspartame (NutraSweet), which is neuroactive in some way (stimulant, I think).

    Great data, and as you say in comparison to super size me, far easier to test and under more real world conditions, which makes the result more relevant. All that SSM showed was that an obviously unhealthy diet makes you unhealthy — we already have plenty of public health/obesity statistics to show that!

    Seth: Good idea about testing MSG and aspartame.

  4. Allan Folz Says:

    5. Pay very close attention to your diet for 2-3 days prior to taking any high-stakes tests. Eg. AP’s, SAT, GRE, etc.

    Seth: Yes, I agree. It’s not just high-stakes tests. It’s anything requiring a quick response. Since I have managed to become much faster at my brain test I am also much better at catching things when they fall. Surely much better at bike riding (reacting quickly) and sports that involve quick reaction, such as baseball.

  5. Nancy Lebovitz Says:

    Seth, do your brain test scores correlate with anything you can feel or notice directly?

    Seth: If I am tired I’ll be slower. that is uninteresting so if I am tired I won’t do the test. Cases like this — low scores — are not noticeable, at least by me, without the test.

  6. dearieme Says:

    “5. Pay very close attention to your diet for 2-3 days prior to taking any high-stakes tests. Eg. AP’s, SAT, GRE, etc.” Follow Bertie Wooster’s advice: eat fish.

  7. dearieme Says:

    Seth, have you ever tried using your tests to compare yourself pre- and post- dental treatment?

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/larryhusten/2014/02/27/tooth-extraction-prior-to-cardiac-surgery-may-not-be-a-good-idea/

    I have long argued that a likely reason for American lifespans being a little shorter than those in many other developed countries is excessive dental treatment, but that link is probably the first I’ve seen to carry a hint of the effect.

  8. john Smith Says:

    Being considered pre-diabetic, and well aware of how well I sleep at night, I have come to avoid the ‘Asian’ style of cuisine available in my city here in Australia. The last four or five times I had meals of that type left me quite sleepless that same night.

    I suspected the MSG, but did not test at home. MSG covers a host of names and similar products added to food according to the Wikipedia, but avoiding them all is a task if one eats either processed food or restaurant food.

    At home I avoid all bottled oils. According to one report olive oil is the most written up complaint about substitution and dilution, and if it is that bad with olive oil, why trust all the rest?

    And speaking of dilution and substitution, that same report listed (along with the oil) milk, fruit juice and honey as the top four!

  9. Bill Says:

    I wonder whether stale oil triggers systemic inflammation. I get wheezy (sort of like asthma) after eating deep-fried food at certain restaurants.

  10. dearieme Says:

    John Smith: we’ve lately taken to buying Portuguese olive oil, now available in the many Portuguese shops in East Anglia. It is our hope that it might be less prone to adulteration than Spanish or italian, if only because the shopkeepers may have more idea of which suppliers to trust than a supermarket buyer has. And even if we’re wrong, there is the compensation that, so far, it has tasted better.

  11. dearieme Says:

    Oh yeah, and the only fruit juice I drink nowadays is from the cherries we grow ourselves. Morello cherries, of course, so that the juice isn’t packed with sugar.

  12. dearieme Says:

    If you scroll down here you’ll see the comparison of the nutritional content of sweet cherries and morellos (sour cherries).

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cherry#Nutritional_value

  13. Justin Irving Says:

    I remember being struck by how much healthier Mongolians (in independent ‘outer’ Mongolia) looked next to Northern Chinese when I visited Mongolia in 2007.

    I wonder If you’d be willing to share the R script you’re using these days for the reaction time test? I’d like to start doing this and would like to work off your script if possible.

  14. Seth Roberts Says:

    To use the R programs join the Brain Tracking group and follow the directions.

  15. Alex Chernavsky Says:

    The Brain Tracking group is here:

    https://plus.google.com/communities/114619130176100669530

  16. as Says:

    Seth Roberts: China has a very high rate of diabetes, for unknown reasons. Chinese teenagers and college students have much worse (inflamed) skin than I see in other countries.

    Indians are even worse.

    Sidney Phillips: Recently my parents visited me and brought some take out from an Indian restaurant. Even though I avoided eating anything with gluten and dairy, the next day I felt off.

    Indian restaurants are terrible about reused oil. It’s not just soybean oil, it’s soybean oil which has been reused several times. Sometimes, the restaurant will reek of that reused oil stench.

    Seth: I guess the good news is that the effect went away in a day. The notion that Chinese restaurants (in China) regularly use bad cooking oil is very old news but no one has had any idea how long the effects last. Maybe you get bad skin if your exposure is too frequent.

  17. Seth Roberts Says:

    “Seth, have you ever tried using your tests to compare yourself pre- and post- dental treatment?”

    yes, I found that after removal of mercury amalgam fillings my brain test scores substantially improved. I was puzzled by improvement for a long time — none of my various explanations predicted correctly — until I noticed that the improvement started exactly at the time of the removal. Those particular fillings were broken. After removal of other fillings, my score did not change.

  18. dearieme Says:

    Thank you for that answer. It makes me suspect that we’ve had this conversation before and I’ve forgotten it. Any remedies for bad memory? (Mine has always been patchy at best.)

    Seth: Yes, I wrote a post about it several years ago. The post said little more than what I said in my reply so it seemed pointless to link to it.

  19. Daniel Says:

    Are you still working on an iPhone app for these tests?

    Seth: yes