Science in Action: Mysterious Mental Improvement (part 2)

Yesterday I blogged about a sudden improvement in how fast I could do arithmetic. The improvement was much larger than normal variation and happened after I did four things that I rarely did. In chronological order:

1. Ate about 30 g of butter.

2. Stood on a cobblestone mat (for 5 minutes, which was all I could bear).

3. Stood during the test.

4. Walked for 10 minutes just before the test.

To find out which mattered, I did them again in the same order and at the same times of day, but with tests before and after each one.  If performance suddenly improved after one of them, then I’d know.

Here’s what actually happened.

2010-03-10 arithmetic time vs time of testThe last six points are the relevant results. The first of the six points (627 msec) was before everything. The second (613 msec) was after butter but before the cobblestones. The third (630 msec) was after the cobblestones but before standing. The fourth (610 msec) and fifth (603 msec) were while standing but before walking. The final one (581 msec) was while standing after walking.

I was surprised and pleased how closely the first and last scores repeated the earlier difference. The first score was close to the previous baseline; the last score was close to the previous outlier. A big improvement seems to be under my control.

Before doing these tests, my best guess about what caused the improvement was the walking. But the scores were improving before the walking so that’s unlikely. Perhaps the walking was one of several factors that helped. The data suggest, if anything, a shocking conclusion: butter made my brain work better. An alternative, less consistent with Occam’s razor, is that butter, standing, and walking all produced smaller improvements, which together added up to the big improvement. The cobblestones produced a short-lived decrement.

That pork fat improved my sleep obviously supports the butter interpretation. I should be less surprised than anyone else, but still . . . Last week I noticed something else that supports the butter explanation. At a restaurant with a friend, the waiter brought bread and olive oil. I asked for butter. I spread all of it on a piece of bread, then asked for more butter, and spread all of that on another piece of bread. (About 30 g butter total.) It was the first time I’d eaten a large amount of butter at a meal. An hour or so later, I felt unusually good, some combination of calm and warmth. I never noticed this after eating pork fat, but butter may be to pork fat as hamburger is to steak: Easier to digest. The pork fat is within cell walls; the butter fat isn’t.

12 Replies to “Science in Action: Mysterious Mental Improvement (part 2)”

  1. You’re catching on, Seth…despite all the demonizing it gets from the mainstream media, animal fat is the stuff of life. I suggest looking up the Paleo movement (this guy, a well-written, levelheaded MD, is a good place to start:; most of us eat diets primarily composed of animal fat, and credit it with improved fitness, sleep, mental functioning, and general health.

    As for the difference between pork and butter, the difference isn’t whether the fat is trapped in cell walls, but whether it’s saturated or unsaturated. Butter is 51% saturated fat by weight; pork belly is only 19% (calculated from Repeat your comparison with other foods high in saturated fat (such as coconut), and I suspect you’ll find the same results.

  2. David, thanks for the link. As for pork fat vs. butter, I divided my pork belly into meat and fat — physically divided it — and made sure I got plenty of fat. For example, 100 g in one meal. Pork fat is about 40% saturated fat. So I got more saturated fat from my pork fat than I got from my butter. I’m not sure I’m catching on: butter is not a paleolithic food. Pork fat is much closer. Standing and walking and walking on rocks are very paleo. Butter was the least paleo thing I did, yet it appeared to be the most effective.

    Alex, trials with errors are dropped from the numbers used to compute average reaction times. I do an analysis that adjusts for overall error rate.

  3. I’m curious if coconut oil or palm oil(the stuff which is called organic vegetable shortening at my store) would have a similar effect? It should by your theory. But I have no idea how available those things are in Beijing.

  4. Great self-experimenting! I think it would be very useful to redo your experiment with the four manipulations delivered in various orders to really isolate the individual factors by balancing out order effects. If you replicate the butter effect (which is not surprising to any one who knows of the work of Weston A. Price), then it would be interesting to do direct comparisons among various dietary lipids, such as coconut oil (~90% medium chain saturated fats), lard, tallow, butter, olive oil, and fish liver oil. I’d love to see a comparative analysis of the effects of fatty acids on cognition.

  5. “Pork fat is about 40% saturated fat. So I got more saturated fat from my pork fat than I got from my butter.”

    Actually pork fat reflects what the pig ate because of how it’s digestive system works. If you feed pig corn and soy, it’s fat is going to be a lot more unsaturated then the nutritional tables are telling you. On the other side cow has bacterias in rumen that will saturate the polyunsaturated oils she eats. Rest assured that you ate a lot more saturated fats with butter then with lard.

    “I’m not sure I’m catching on: butter is not a paleolithic food. Pork fat is much closer.”

    I would not fall for this paleo dogma. We are mammals. It’s paleo only in the mythological thinking of the “let’s do every stupid thing hunter-gatherers did” kind, but metabolicaly speaking it’s a nonsense. Butter is easier to absorb because it’s higher ratio of short and middle chain fatty acids mean that it needs less action from your digestive system, and for the same reason it’s also better fuel. Same for coconut oil.

  6. As an addendum to Jaroslav’s comment: I remember hearing a story in nutrition class about how farmers in Great Britain tried to up the ratio of unsaturated:saturated fat in pigs by modifying their feed. They were so successful that when the slaughtered carcasses were hung up on the meat hooks, the fat just dripped off like oil.

  7. Hand activity prior to solving equations could count as another parameter. Since buttering the bread could be counted as hand activity, it might be more accurate experimenting to butter the bread before the baseline is measured, or solve equations after buttering but before eating the butter.
    Also how long after eating the butter do you solve the equations? Maybe there is an optimal time to wait to obtain the best results.

  8. Dean, why do you think that hand activity might matter? In the case of the anomalous results, I ate the butter a few hours before the test. And the effect — the improvement caused by the butter — seemed to grow during those hours, which is what you’d expect as a nutrient is gradually absorbed.

  9. I’m a bit late to the party (your entry was dated March, 2010) but as a sexy old woman (77), my mantra is butter is a reason to wake up in the morning. I’ve gone through every type of butter available, hoping that the organic grass-fed type (truly deep yellow in color) would be the best but Jana Valley (Czech butter) is number one for me.

    People are always asking how, at my advanced age, I am wrinkle free and when I say that I eat lots of good saturated fat, they shudder.

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