Science in Action: Mysterious Mental Improvement (part 3)

Previously on Seth’s Blog: A few weeks ago, during a brief test, I did simple arithmetic (e.g., 3+8, 4*0) substantially faster than usual. The next day, under the same conditions, it happened again. I thought of four possible reasons for the improvement:

  • 30 g of butter I’d eaten a few hours earlier.
  • A cobblestone mat I’d stood on earlier for 5 minutes.
  • Walking for 10 minutes before the test.
  • Standing (rather than sitting) during the test.

I guessed it was the walking.

Since then I’ve been gathering data to choose between these possibilities. I’ve been eating butter regularly to see if there’s a chronic speed-up. And I’ve been doing pairs of tests 20 minutes apart. The first test provides a baseline against which to judge the results of the second test. To measure the effects of the cobblestone mat I stood on the mat between the tests. To measure the effect of walking, I walked during the time between the tests. To measure the effect of standing, I stood during the second test but not the first.

The results so far suggest, to my surprise, that two of the four factors helped: butter and standing. How wrong I was!
At Berkeley, one of my students did a self-experiment that compared different ways of studying. She measured how long she stayed awake while studying foreign vocabulary. Worst turned out to be the conventional way: sitting at her desk in silence. Best was lying on her bed listening to hard rock. My new results are sort of a bigger version of the same thing: conventionally we avoid butter and sit while doing intellectual work.

6 Replies to “Science in Action: Mysterious Mental Improvement (part 3)”

  1. “the cobblestone mat reference”: the link shows what a cobblestone mat looks like. Chinese medicine says walking on them is good for you. I can’t yet walk on mine, I just stand.

  2. one question. i bet you’ve covered this before, but are you doing data entry during this test or just simple arithmetic? do you see the arithmetic questions sequentially (ie do you have to finish one before starting the next) or do you see many of them at once? are you set up to do this test without glancing up or down — without having to, say, refocus your eyes? (i’m just wondering what factors besides doing arithmetic are at play.)

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