Beijing versus Berkeley: Which is Healthier?

 photo 2i014-01-10berkeleyvsbeijingreactiontime_zps221e5bf7.jpeg This graph shows my brain test reaction times over roughly one year. Each point is a different test; I usually do two tests per day back to back. I assume faster = better. In February 2013 I returned to Berkeley from Beijing. In August 2013 I went back to Beijing. When I returned to Berkeley, my scores got worse (slower). I was shocked. Surely Berkeley is healthier than Beijing. At first I thought it was jet lag, but the scores stayed worse long after that made sense. Then I thought it might be some difference in diet, even though I eat similar food in the two places. I tried to make my Berkeley diet closer to my Beijing diet. This might have helped. I noticed accidentally that chocolate improved my score and started eating chocolate frequently. This artificially reduced the difference since in Beijing I had not been eating chocolate. In Berkeley I started doing two things I hadn’t done in Beijing: alternate-day fasting and whole-body vibration. I don’t know if they made a difference. When I returned to Beijing in September, my scores got better, even though I was not eating chocolate. Eventually I improved my sleep in Beijing but that seemed to make little difference. The comparison is far from perfect — many things varied — but by and large my scores got worse when I went from Beijing to Berkeley and improved when I went from Berkeley to Beijing.

What might have caused this? There are a hundred possibilities but one stands out. In both places, I brew and drink several cups of tea every day. In Beijing, everyone, including me, drinks water from big plastic bottles that are delivered to your house. You can choose pure water or “mineral” water, which has  added magnesium and potassium. In Berkeley I use tap water (Brita filtered). I don’t think potassium affects brain function — for example, eating bananas makes no difference — but there is plenty of evidence that magnesium improves brain function. In Beijing I had tested a magnesium supplement and found no effect, consistent with the idea that I was already getting enough. Magnesium is also believed to improve sleep. In Beijing I seemed to sleep better than in Berkeley. Again, this is consistent with a difference in magnesium levels (more in Beijing). If ordinary magnesium-enriched water improves brain function, it would be significant because it is so easy, in contrast to other ways of increasing magnesium levels.

16 Replies to “Beijing versus Berkeley: Which is Healthier?”

  1. Maybe because Beijing is otherwise so unhealthy you take extra precautions there whereas in Berkeley, where you would perceive your day-to-day environment as relatively benign, you aren’t as careful about other potentially negative environmental exposures to toxins? Your water choice could be one of those 0.5% things that add up over a number of different items to become statistically significant.

    I know when I go back to the US, I relax on the bad stuff that I would otherwise not eat in Hong Kong, where I pay more attention. Part of it is some home cooked meals from my childhood contain ingredients I don’t eat now, for example. Part of it is that in the US, Taco Bell is right there and calls my name, but in all of Asia there is no such temptation.

  2. To me the data look like one smooth curve that has not got much to do with location. The reaction times rose during the first Beijing trip, picked up in Berkeley at about the same level, then began a long steady decline that continued through your entire Berkeley residence and through the next Beijing one. I don’t see a discontinuity when you went back to Beijing.

    With that much scatter in the data, you shouldn’t pay much attention to details like wiggles and shelves in the smoothed data, even if you use LOWESS smoothing. Or use a much wider smoothing window.

    To me, the simplest explanation would be that when you got back to Berkeley, you started doing something that has a small but long term beneficial effect. The improvements are still playing out. Judging by the data, the rate of improvement appears to be declining – perhaps the effect has nearly run its course.

    Now what is causing the change, if anything?

    Seth: The Berkeley Beijing discontinuity is somewhat hidden by the fitted lines which average over large periods of time. Look at the points closely and you will see it.

  3. Maybe it’s stress. Whether you think about it or not, maybe Beijing is less stressful than Berkeley.

    I find that sitting on the beach is very relaxing, much more so than any other “natural” environment (i.e. parks, mountains, desert), and usually take a little nap. The ocean has high levels of magnesium and as waves break on the shore their magnesium filled mist is carried on shore by the sea breeze where it is easily inhaled.

    Maybe the magnesium in the water reduces your stress level, improving your scores.

  4. I agree with Tom Passin, your results (with the exception of the weirdness present in the Beijing “run-in” period) would seem to be consistent with a continuous improvement from Berkeley period through second Beijing period. Also, wondering if you use the same computer in both locations?

    Seth: I use the same computer in both locations. Had I used a different loess parameter, the sharp change from Berkeley to Beijing would have been clearer.

  5. My first thought was perhaps the impact of being in new surroundings (e.g. Beijing) would cause an excitability that would positively impact reaction times whereas Berkeley, even after a stint away, is old-hat. Returning to Beijing a second time would be less impactful as the “newness” would not be present the second time around.

    Seth: I’d spent a lot of time in Beijing before this data.

  6. “Maybe the magnesium in the water reduces your stress level, improving your scores.”

    Which should be easy enough to test.

  7. Looks like classic training effect to me: your reaction times are getting faster because you take the test so often. What, exactly, is the test? Did you make some kind of adjustment back in late 2012?

    I don’t have self data like yours about reaction times, but my Zeo data (several years, across both countries) shows no difference at all. Eg. if REM is a proxy for stimulation or something, I see no patterns.

    FWIW, anecdotally I feel more “alive” when I’m in Beijing: Lots of new, interesting stimulii everywhere, regular interaction with unusual people from different backgrounds. In the US I’m just another guy. It’d be interesting if that anecdotal sense was quantifiable.

    Seth: The practice effect stopped long before this data was collected. The test is a choice reaction time test. It was constant over the period shown.

  8. seth, i’ve played dozens of video games in my life, many of them nothing but elaborate ”choice reaction time tests”, and skill plateaus followed by gradual improvement are common all along the skill spectrum. you cannot say with any confidence that practice effects have stopped.

    Seth: Going from Beijing to Berkeley I slowed down. That cannot be due to a practice effect.

  9. Seth, I have yet to discover just where you stand on the subject of astrology, or better yet, the cycles of life (which are never out of sync with the solar system!). But you must be aware that cycles accompany most parts of our lives.

    I have no doubt that a competent ‘astrologer’ would reveal that some important cycles were involved in your personal ups and downs. If you dig deeper into your own awareness of self, you may discover that many things in your life were in a state of flux, change, reorganization, etc. about the time your dots were dancing.

    Sleepless nights in my life can be triggered by many events, of course, but no one causative suspect can ever be relied on to promote such. It takes several of them to produce the effect, and that generally occurs when there are negative aspects in the solar clock to the position of Uranus in my birth chart.

    Your reaction time will be affected seriously at times when Mercury is in a challenging position to your birth positions. In my experience, the ‘mood’ of the solar system is the only causative factor that reliably is indicated in any situation.

    Do the planets compel us? Not necessarily, but we certainly respond to their transits and we cannot escape their influence, only adapt to it. Try getting your daylight off sync to the real one. Try getting summer in California to be winter, just for your own purposes. It will not work. Even being on the moon is no escape, it is only a variation.

  10. my comment was not about the increase in RT from beijing to berkeley. i said, specifically, that practice effects cannot be excluded as a partial explanation for the observed improvements because it is not easy to tell when practice effects have stopped. even simple skills develop in fits and starts.

  11. Seth – what was responsible for the very abrupt slowdown in Beijing before you left for Berkley? It looks quite unnatural compared to the other changes and discontinuities?

    Seth: Good question. I don’t know.

  12. So, are you planning on taking a magnesium supplement for a period in Berkley and testing after that?

    Seth: Yes, I will test the magnesium explanation.

  13. Does this test rely on the site of your computer network?

    In the vane of a practice effect: some suggest lots of plateaus in skill before improvement as new neural networks are built. Not likely the reason though IMO.

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