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Science in Action: Mysterious Mental Improvement

Posted Mar 10 2010 8:15am

For a few years, I’ve been making daily measurements of how well my brain works. I got the idea after I found that omega-3 (from flaxseed oil) improves my balance. It improved other mental functions as well. Tim Lundeen, using an arithmetic test, found similar results . These results suggested to me there might be a lot we don’t know about how our environment affects our brain.

If so, tracking myself might turn up interesting anomalies — clues to big environmental effects. The first one I found involved flaxseed oil. There turned out to be a short burst of improvement after I took it. The second anomaly I found also involved flaxseed oil. When I switched from Chinese flaxseed oil to American flaxseed oil (Spectrum Organic), a few days later my arithmetic scores suddenly improved. Something was wrong with the Chinese flaxseed oil.
The third revealing anomaly — which doesn’t involve flaxseed oil — happened yesterday (see below). Each point on the graph is one testing session.  Each session consists of 32 simple arithmetic problems (e.g., 3+5, 7-6) and takes about 3 minutes. I use R on my laptop to collect the data. I type the answer or the last digit of the answer (e.g., if the answer is 13 I type “3″) as fast as possible. Here are the results from almost a year of this task 2010-03-09 arithmetic time vs time of test

The Y axis is the time it took to do one problem. Yesterday, the graph shows, I suddenly got much faster. My score dropped about 50 msec — far more than normal variation.

What caused the drop? I can think of four possibilities:

1. The test was standing. Usually I test myself sitting.

2. The test happened after I’d been walking on my treadmill for 10 minutes. That too was very rare.

3. I’d had about 30 g of butter 2 hours earlier.

4. I’d stood on my cobblestone mat 2 hours earlier.

My guess is that it’s #2 (10 min walking). The previous record low score, in January, might have come after I did Dance Dance Revolution for 30 minutes or so.

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