The Greatness of Behind The Approval Matrix

What I like most about magazines is their ability to open new worlds to me. Books — unless by Jane Jacobs — rarely do this. Music, TV, and movies almost never do this. Paintings and other visual arts never do this (to me). Magazines do this regularly. Entertainment Weekly — the best magazine with a dull name — tries to do this (and succeeds). I am now reading The Golden Compass because of EW. An issue of Colors made me visit Iceland. Spy made New York fascinating. (E.g., an NYC map of smells.) It’s the best kind of teaching: you open a door and make what’s inside seem so interesting and wonderful that the student voluntarily decides to enter and explore.

Which is why it isn’t completely surprising that Abu Ayyub Ibrahim, who writes Behind the Approval Matrix, is a teacher. New York magazine’s Approval Matrix has a wonderful way of introducing new things: with humor, poetry (if well-written short captions = poetry), a dash of outrage (calling stuff “despicable”), and an attractive layout. When it calls something Brilliant, I’m instantly curious — thus fulfilling the best function of magazines with remarkable ease. The problem for me, and I assume many others, is that the captions are often obscure. Behind the Approval Matrix — which might have been called The Annotated Approval Matrix — explains each item.

The creators of The Approval Matrix had a great idea and didn’t quite pull it off. It’s often too hard to figure out what they’re talking about. Ibrahim has supplied what is missing.

It’s a bit like my self-experimentation. Previous (conventional) research, for various reasons, couldn’t quite reach practical applications (e.g., omega-3 research couldn’t figure out the best dose); my self-experimentation, building on that research, was able to cover the final mile.

9 Replies to “The Greatness of Behind The Approval Matrix

  1. I enjoy reading your blog. But I find infuriating the frequent non sequitur congratulatory insertions about your research on omega-3s in posts otherwise about other topics. It does not serve you well as a scientist and as a blogger.

    As to the correct dosage, I looked at my file in which I keep references for future use. The portion devoted to omega-3 goes on for 42 pages. A percentage of these studies are clinical trails (at least 900 have been done) or animal research and do talk about dosage.

    Dosage for what? A relatively low dose of EPA/DHA has been used in coronary heart disease studies. But one gram per day shows significant reductions in a variety of bad outcomes. Want to reduce triglycerides, 2 to 4 grams a day. Elevated blood pressure, at least 3 grams per day, but higher doses for higher blood pressure. Rheumatoid arthritis, 2 to 6 grams daily, but with greater percentages of EPA which is a major precursor to anti-inflammatory eicosanoids (DHA is not). And so on.

    What else is one consuming? Overconsumption of Omega-6 EFAs in the American diet is part of the problem. For example, there is some suggestion that maximum conversion of the 18 carbon Omega-3 (ALA, the Omega-3 in flax oil) to EPA occurs when the consumption of Omega-6 to Omega-3 is 2.3 to 1. But are Omega-6 EFAs bad? We have known that complete elimination of Omega-6s from the diet results in serious disease since the 1930s. There are only a handful of recognized such cases for Omega-3s.

    Can one take too much? Omega-3 EFAs reduce the ability of the blood to clot. For someone on the modern American diet, that first step of reduction is probably good for almost everyone. Somewhere around 13 grams of daily consumption of EPA/DHA probably gets dangerous.

    I like the idea of self-experimentation. But it is suggestive. As science, it tells us where it might be fruitful to look further, but it does not establish the “truth” of anything. I find your results of the effect on cognition from the consumption of ALA intriguing. I cannot account for it. I have some ideas why it might work, but I do not know. And almost certainly, if true, it is different from the ways EPA/DHA work in multiple different ways throughout the body.

  2. barjac, if you think I didn’t figure out the optimal dosage for myself, I’d be curious to know why. I gave a reason for generalizing from my measurements of cognitive function to other measures.

    If you think the optimal dosage has been figured out in other studies, can you give a citation for this claim so I can look at the evidence for it? You seem to be giving the ranges of dosages used in published studies; they may all be too low or too high.

  3. Seth,

    Thanks so much for the kind compliments! I’ve been meaning to email you since I switched to the new format. Please send me an email, and let me know what you think.

    I’m going to start checking out “Entertainment Weekly”, and “Spy.” Wait, is “Spy” still in circulation?

    Thanks again!


    P.S. I can’t believe the magazine didn’t come out today.

  4. Indulge me with a part of a story from New Scientist, 9 February 2008. “Dingemanse and his colleagues have established that there is genetic variation underlying exploration behaviour in small birds called great tits – some individuals inherit a highly exploratory personality and others a more cautious one. The researchers measured this trait in wild great tits and related it to their survival over three years. For females, the higher the exploration score, the more likely they were to survive in 1999 and 2001… However, in 2000, when resources were abundant, low-scoring females were more likely to survive….
    For males this pattern was reversed, reflecting the different survival pressures that they face. This study and others like it make a powerful point: the optimum level of a personality trait depends on the details of the local ecology.”

    As humans we want a simple story. As scientists, one wants to say all other things being equal. (I chose the above story for how important all other things being equal is – I am a parable kind of guy, I realize some may read it and think how bizarre, but for me it is salient to the issue.) But things are complicated. Small changes in one dial can make the optimum setting of another dial different. Take acetaminophen toxicity. Assuming one does not have liver disease or has not drunk some alcohol recently, one can probably take 4 or 5 grams of acetaminophen safely. Not a good idea, but it will probably not kill or damage most people. The liver uses glutamate in metabolizing the toxic ingredient. Somewhere north of 7 or 8 grams, there is a cliff effect. Glutamate runs out and now things go south for the liver quickly. So no one should take, say, 20 grams of acetaminophen at once and almost all normal people can take 700 mg and a fair percentage will get pain relief. But what about 700 mg every four hours, is that okay? That is only 4.2 grams a day. What about day after day? What is the optimum dose for pain relief? What is the maximum safe dose? Both vary from person to person and importantly, both vary for the same person from time to time. (Most non-prescription drugs have a much higher ratio of toxic to therapeutic effect.)

    These examples are chosen for dramatic effect. The bullet point is that there is no such thing as an optimal dosage. Just a pretty good therapeutic dosage for a particular desired effect. One hopes the side effects are minimal. One hopes it remains a pretty good therapeutic dose, but a lot of the time it does not. Things change over time.

    Dosage for what? From the University of Maryland Medical Center web site:
    ”Macular Degeneration…Another larger clinical study confirms that EPA and DHA from fish, 4 or more times per week, may reduce the risk of developing macular degeneration. Notably, however, this same study suggests that ALA may actually increase the risk of this eye condition.”
    (So ALA is bad?)
    “Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)… In animals, it appears that ALA works better at decreasing bowel inflammation than EPA and DHA.”
    (So ALA is good, better even?)
    Stroke: “Strong evidence from population-based clinical studies suggests that omega-3 fatty acid intake (primarily from fish) helps protect against stroke caused by plaque buildup and blood clots in the arteries that lead to the brain. In fact, eating at least 2 servings of fish per week can reduce the risk of stroke by as much as 50%. However, people who eat more than 3 grams of omega-3 fatty acids per day (equivalent to 3 servings of fish per day) may be at an increased risk for hemorrhagic stroke, a potentially fatal type of stroke in which an artery in the brain leaks or ruptures.”
    (Less one thinks that this example provides brackets for an optimal dose, note that for Americans a lot of therapeutic effects for other diseases start around 3 grams per day.)
    “Depression…In a clinical study of individuals with depression, those who ate a healthy diet consisting of fatty fish 2 – 3 times per week for 5 years experienced a significant reduction in feelings of depression and hostility.”
    (Probably mostly the DHA. Note the effect is over years – got to retrofit all those cell membranes – also note that even at a healthy level there is more arachidonic acid (omega-6) in brain cell membranes than DHA. It would probably be impossible to get this effect with just ALA and certainly not with just ALA in a diet high in Omega-6 alpha-linoleic acid. So the time effects range from the short-term in the self-experimentation that you did to days to weeks to a few months for anti-inflammatory effects – the gum disease example, but also other things such as sudden death from heart disease to years in the case of DHA in brain and eye cell membranes.)

    Could a dose of 3 grams or more of EPA/DHA just be too high, but the only one that will work to counteract the effects of a lifetime diet low in omega-3s and high in omega-6s? You have shown that ALA has an effect on a particular type of cognitive function in the short term in one person. Speculation is that it worked as a fat metabolized for energy. But it really tells us nothing about a good quantity for omega-3 in your diet over the long-term and even less about what might be good for other people. I am not trying to belittle the self-experiment that you ran, but it just doesn’t.

  5. Consider that it might be an fat metabolism providing a source of energy effect. Does it matter if you are somewhat ketotic after fasting or if you have recently ingested glucose. It has been a while since I read your stuff, maybe you considered this.

  6. I doubt that omega-3 brain effects are due to its being a source of energy. The brain is more than half fat — structural fat — and a lot of that is omega-3. Other fatty acids, as far as I can tell, do not produce the same effect.

    The studies you mention do not indicate optimal dosage. Such a study requires testing several doses and mapping out a dose-response function. Because self-experimentation is so easy and fast and the effects so clear, I was able to do a fair approximation of such a study. Of course my data is imperfect, of course it’s unclear how far to generalize, but to say “it really tells us nothing about a good quantity of omega-3 in your diet over the long-term” is an overstatement.

  7. By the way, I was typing fast and there is more DHA than arachidonic acid in brain membranes. About a quarter of the fat by weight in the brain is DHA, 10 percent AA. 50% of the weight of the neuron’s plasma membrane is composed of DHA. There is only a small amount of EPA in the brain. Only a small amount of ALA is converted to DHA, so even if your daily flaxseed consumption resulted in the consumption of, say, 7 or 8 grams of ALA, the amount of DHA resulting would be no more than a few hundred mg of DHA, probably a lot less. So overnight the consumption of a lot of ALA probably cannot effect the main ways that DHA effects cognition. Not enough DHA and not enough time to incorporate significant amounts into membranes. But I can quickly run out of fingers (a couple of times) just off the top of my head listing ways DHA is used in the body in addition to phospholipids. One or more of them may have an overnight effect.

    Yeah, the energy metabolism comment was the result of an impish impulse. Not absolutely, completely to be ruled out however. My impulse to comment here has run its course, so I will stop. But remember, we know a LOT about the biochemical processes these chemicals are involved in. And there is even more we don’t yet understand. Especially in the complexity, the interactions, the emergent properties. It would be quite amazing if one guy experimenting on himself standing on one foot learned something astounding. That he learned something quite admirable, we learn a little something every time we do science even if it is that we don’t yet understand.

  8. I have to say I always read Seth on Omega 3 as more happy about it than anything else. If you’ve ever talked to him, you can just hear his voice. More of a “gee, this reminds me of” than “non sequitur congratulatory insertions.”

    Omega 3 dosages, and I’ve read a number of studies, are something that have a pretty wide range — more than 100% (2-5 grams, as in the one study, is 150% range — that’s like saying maybe this, maybe twice this, maybe more), depending on what you are seeking to accomplish.

    I like the perspective of “covering the final mile” in the post.

    Honestly, the blog has gotten more interesting over time.

  9. …”It’s the best kind of teaching: you open a door and make what’s inside seem so interesting and wonderful that the student voluntarily decides to enter and explore.

    Which is why it isn’t completely surprising that Abu Ayyub Ibrahim, who writes Behind the Approval Matrix, is a teacher. New York magazine’s Approval Matrix has a wonderful way of introducing new things: with humor, poetry (if well-written short captions = poetry), a dash of outrage (calling stuff “despicable”), and an attractive layout. When it calls something Brilliant, I’m instantly curious — thus fulfilling the best function of magazines with remarkable ease.”

    Those are interesting and sharp observations from you, a professional teacher and especially a learner through experiment, yourself. I had just finished blogging a bit on a science project my second grandson is engaged in, touching on a long-standing concern about the interconnectedness of giftedness (primarily in the arts, including humor) with academic learning and enjoyment. Leeches, Amoebas & Algae (Oh My!) . I believe that children and adults who exhibit such gifts (and those who may not exhibit them) develop them primarily as learning-tools, while the enjoyment and entertainment we derive from them may be secondary benefits.

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