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). Continue reading “Brain Test Phenomenology: Bad Beijing Restaurant?”
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.
Six years ago I started using a reaction-time (RT) test (a test where you press a key in response to something as fast as possible) to track my brain function. I took the test daily. It must use only a small part of the brain but I assumed that something that made me faster would probably improve overall brain function. Behind this belief, which I call better RT, better brain, were countless studies of brain anatomy and physiology, which had shown that neurons and glial cells all over the brain share many features. Cells in different parts of the brain are much more alike than different. More support for this assumption was that certain doses of flaxseed oil improved both RT and other measures of brain function, such as balance.
I also assumed that changes that improved RT would probably improve overall health — what I call the better RT, better body assumption. It was less plausible than the better RT, better brain assumption because the cells in different organs of the body differ so much. They have many similarities but also many differences. I believed it for two reasons. (a) Flaxseed oil not only improved several measures of brain function, it improved my gums, no doubt because it reduced inflammation. It had been far from obvious that improving gums was so easy or that flaxseed oil (in the right dosage) would do so. The assumption better RT, better body had made a surprising prediction, you could say, that turned out to be true. (b) The brain gets much the same blood as the rest of the body. (Not exactly the same, because of the blood-brain barrier.) In the same way, all plug-in electrical appliances use the same house current. Just as all appliances have been designed to work well with that current, all our organs should have been shaped by evolution to work well with same mix of nutrients. You can’t feed your brain differently than your heart.
I recently found more support for the better RT, better body assumption. Several studies have found that RT is a good predictor of health (better RT, better health). Even more impressive, it is a better predictor than many of the predictors we already know of. The RT test used in these studies is close to the test I now use, which I developed independently. The RT test in these studies involves showing a digit (0-4), after which the subject presses one of five keys (labelled 0-4) as fast as possible. My current RT test is very similar but uses 7 digits instead of 5.
A 2005 study looked at the oft-reported correlation between higher IQ and lower mortality. The IQs and RTs of about 900 persons were measured in 1988. Deaths until 2002 were noted. RT was associated with lower mortality, even after taking out associations with smoking, education and social class. RT and IQ are correlated (better RT, higher IQ). When the RT-death association was removed, IQ no longer predicted death. So RT does a good job of capturing whatever it is about IQ that predicts mortality.
A 2009 study compared RT to more conventional health predictors (“risk factors”). About 7,000 subjects were followed from 1984 to 2005. RT in 1984 was a good predictor of all-cause mortality compared to classic risk factors. Smoking was by far the best predictor, followed by RT. RT was a better predictor than physical activity, blood pressure, a questionnaire measuring “psychological distress”, resting heart rate, waist/hip ratio, alcohol intake, and body mass index.
A third study, based on the same subjects as the 2009 study, found that amount of decline (slowing) in RT (from one test to a second test seven years later) predicted death. People with more decline were more likely to die.
All this supports studying how your RT is controlled by your environment, especially what you eat. You have to choose wisely what to study. The point is not to be as fast as possible regardless of everything else. Lots of drugs (stimulants, such as caffeine) decrease RT for short periods of time. I doubt they improve health. (If they harm sleep, they probably worsen health.) What makes sense is to look for two things: 1. Poisons. Things that slow you down. I discovered that tofu did so. I gave several reasons for thinking that tofu affects many people this way, not just me. Billions of people eat tofu, unaware of this possibility. 2. Deficiencies. Study things that are missing from your life now but were likely to be present when we evolved. It is quite plausible that our ancient ancestors ate more omega-3 (in fish, but also in flaxseed) and more animal fat (from big animals, but also in butter) than we do now. My data suggest omega-3 and animal fat are nutrients necessary for health whose importance mainstream nutrition researchers have not fully appreciated.
My RT data have shown me there’s a lot I didn’t/don’t know about how my food affects me. Maybe everyone can say that. Unlike almost anyone else, however, I can reduce my ignorance myself. I don’t need to rely on experts.
After I posted that tofu made me stupid — made me slower on a reaction-time test — a reader named Ann, who lives in Florida, said she had discovered that her migraine headaches were caused by soy. How she discovered this:
I was 49 years old and in that hot flashes stage of life, had read that soy could help alleviate them and tried a soy capsule not at a meal, immediately noticed sinus pressure and itchiness.
So I started reading all labels and eliminated soy from my diet and my migraines and sinus headaches went away! The hot flashes eventually went away on their own. I was losing whole days every month to the migraines. Every now and then the soy sneaks in at a restaurant but not as bad as before. Whenever anyone says they have migraines I always suggest looking at soy. Regretfully my daughter has the same issue, but she has way fewer headaches after eliminating soy.
I used to blame a lot of my headaches on allergies, never thinking it could be something I was eating. At age 60 now, my cholesterol numbers are excellent and I weigh 122 pounds when so many of my friends are overweight.
I asked how long it had taken to discover this.
I had been having migraines for years, 10-20, but in the mid 90s they got worse (could have coincided with more soy in food). Saw a doctor but he just prescribed imitrex which helped but did not prevent them. He never suggested looking for a food cause. It was dumb luck or divine intervention that I tried that soy capsule in 2001 or 2002. I am often amazed at how much better I feel health wise since then. Since soy is in so much processed food my diet is very basic “real” food. Raw fruits and veggies, plain nuts, fresh meat, real cheese, eggs, yogurt, any desserts I make from scratch with real butter. I’m always excited when I find a cracker that doesn’t have soy since that’s usually my bread substitute.
Let me repeat part of that: A doctor she saw because of migrains did not suggest trying to find an environmental cause. The same thing happened to a woman I wrote about for Boing Boing. Her doctor just prescribed one drug after another. Her migraines turned out to be caused by cleaning products. Not knowing that migraines often have environmental causes is like not knowing the germ theory of disease.
Few soy eaters realize the dangers of soy, as far as I can tell. I wrote to one of them, Virginia Messina, a nutritionist who has said “there is no reason to believe that eating soyfoods is harmful to brain aging.” She has not replied.
A long list of possible migraine triggers (from the UC Berkeley health service) does not list soy, although it does mention soy sauce. It says soy milk should be safe. In a 2006 interview, one headache doctor recommended avoiding all soy. In the comments to this, a woman says:
SOY is the biggest trigger for my migraines. For years I suffered daily from migraines but after watching EVERYTHING I eat and reading all labels and avoiding SOY as best I can I am doing better. The biggest problem is that SOY is in everything!!!! I think one day they will find out how bad it is for us.
Imagine that. Putting something that damages the brain in everything.
I’ve been testing my brain function daily for the last six years. I use a reaction-time test (see digit, type digit as fast as possible) that takes about five minutes. I have gradually improved the test over the years — this is about version 8. One reason for this testing is that I might observe a sudden change. That could suggest a new factor that affects brain function — whatever was unusual before the change (e.g., a new food). This is how I discovered the effect of butter. My score suddenly improved, I investigated. Another sudden change (improvement) happened soon after I switched from Chinese flaxseed oil to American flaxseed oil. I hadn’t realized that something was wrong with the Chinese flaxseed oil. I started brain tracking after I noticed a sudden improvement in balance the morning after I swallowed about five flaxseed oil capsules. Millions of people had taken flaxseed oil capsules, but no one, it seemed, had noticed the balance improvement. Maybe other big changes in brain function go unnoticed, I thought.
- No correlation between omega-3 levels and cognitive function. I found strong effects of flaxseed oil (high in omega-3) in experiments, so this finding doesn’t worry me. Maybe the measures of cognitive function in this study depended on too many things they didn’t measure or control.
- Does methanol cause multiple sclerosis? Woodrow Monte makes a good case. “In the 1940s, . . . the National Multiple Sclerosis Society found the incidence of the disease to be virtually equally distributed between the sexes. . . . The real sea change in the incidence of MS in women did not come until after the introduction of a brand new methanol source . . . a can of diet soda sweetened with aspartame has up to four times the amount of methanol as a can of green beans. . . . At the 59th annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology in Boston on April 26, 2007
- Honey in human evolution. “Upper Paleolithic (8,000 – 40,000 years ago) rock art from all around the world depicts early humans collecting honey. . . . .The Hadza hunter-gatherers of Tanzania list honey as their number one preferred food item.”
- What one climate scientist really thinks about Michael Mann. “MBH98 [Mann et al.] was not an example of someone using a technique with flaws and then as he [Mann] learned better techniques he moved on… He fought like a dog to discredit and argue with those on the other side that his method was not flawed. And in the end he never admitted that the entire method was a mistake. Saying “I was wrong but when done right it gives close to the same answer” is no excuse. He never even said that . . . They used a brand new statistical technique that they made up and that there was no rationalization in the literature for using it. They got results which were against the traditional scientific communities view on the matters and instead of re-evaluating and checking whether the traditional statistics were [still] valid [in this unusual case] (which they weren’t), they went on and produced another one a year later. They then let this HS [hockey stick] be used in every way possible . . . despite knowing the stats behind it weren’t rock solid.” Smart people still fail to grasp the weakness of the evidence. Elon Musk, the engineer, recently blogged, responding to Tesla fires, that Tesla development must happen as fast as possible because if delayed “it will . . . increase the risk of global climate change.”
Thanks to Dave Lull, Stuart King and Joe Nemetz.
An article in the latest Nutrition Journal says that a “proprietary” extract of chicken meat, called CMI-168, improved brain function. From the abstract:
Normal, healthy subjects were supplemented with either placebo or CMI-168 for 6 weeks. The subjects were given a series of cognitive tests to examine their levels of cognitive functioning at the beginning and end of supplementation, as well as two weeks after termination of supplementation. The combination of these tests, namely Digit Span Backwards, Letter-Number Sequencing, and the Rey Auditory Verbal Learning Test (RAVLT), was used to assess the subjects’ attention and working memory. . . . Subjects supplemented with CMI-168 showed significantly (p < 0.01) better performance in all cognitive tests after 6 weeks’ supplementation compared to [placebo] and [their] superior performance was maintained even 2 weeks after termination of supplementation.
This is the first time I’ve heard that something in chicken improves brain function. The abstract understates the strength of the evidence; p < 0.001 (not 0.01) in almost all relevant comparisons.
However, several details make me question the claim. Continue reading “Does Chicken Extract Improve Brain Function?”
- The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education (1998). Aaron Swartz was greatly influenced by this book.
- High-carb versus low-carb diet difference influences memory. There were a thousand differences between the diet called high-carb and the diet called low-carb, don’t take seriously the idea that the crucial difference is the carbohydrate difference. That’s just one possibility. The main thing to learn from this study is that your memory is affected by what you eat.
- Climate models predict poorly. “Christy said he believes the models overestimate warming because of the way they handle clouds.” I have said for a long time that too much faith has been put in climate models, which have not been shown to predict correctly.
- Experts and guidebook say toxic plant is edible. Someone who trusted the guidebook died.
Thanks to Jeff Winkler and Tom George.