Sunday, December 11, 2005

Mysteries of the Ages, Revealed!

It's been an interesting week. I've had no less than two new revelations of the earth-shattering, omygod, this-changes-everything variety, along with a couple of lower level, "of course, how could I have missed that" ones, all in completely different fields, although all involving mindhacks to some extent. None of these ideas are my own personal discoveries, though; in all cases they came from reading something somebody else wrote, although I did quite a bit of further development on some of them.

To do a proper write-up on them, though, I feel like I would need to do some more research to back up the neurological basis for the one idea (which has already proven effective in use), and to test the effectiveness of the other (whose neurological theory has been pretty well established by someone else already). Unfortunately, I don't have much time to do either, as I'm trying to wrap up some documentation work for the Chandler 0.6 release this week, which is also a big part of why I haven't been writing part 2 of the Refactored Self article, either. I will throw out a few quick teasers, though.

First, have you ever read any of those Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus books? My problem with that stuff is that it's just too much information - a catalogue of differences rather than an actual theory of the differences. Yes, it's definitely worth reading for the areas it covers, but it's neither predictive nor prescriptive outside of those areas. While this obviously creates ongoing income for the author to write further books, give workshops, etc., it's not really my preferred option as a mind hacker.

What I realized this week, however, is that there is a simpler, neurologically based metaphor for the Mars/Venus phenomenon that has so far been powerfully predictive and prescriptive in my personal use, at least as a man interacting with a woman. My explanation of the metaphor to my wife hasn't been as helpful to her understanding me, alas, but this is probably because it's easier for a man to imagine having the extra ability that women have, than for a woman to imagine being without that ability, because it's a fish-can't-see-the-water kind of thing. Oh well.

Anyway, credit for pointing me in the right direction goes to the anonymous commenter who cited David DeAngelo's "Double Your Dating" materials. While I'm happily married, I do read this sort of material from time to time, precisely because it often offers unique insights from men into the minds of women (without the watering-down of political correctness that's generally required for mainstream self-help literature). In particular, quite a bit of the "seduction literature" is focused on ways to make a woman feel good through one's speech and action, and that is an even more important skill to have in marriage than in dating!

Anyway, in this particular case, I just read some of DeAngelo's online textual material, but it said a few very nonintuitive (from the male perspective) and provocative (from the female perspective) things that got me to thinking and experimenting with changing certain aspects of my communication with Leslie. I then talked with her about them, and verified my theory, at least to the extent that it describes the major difference between my consciousness and hers - but not necessarily the difference between every man and woman.

Interestingly, when I described the concepts in the male-oriented action-based language DeAngelo used to get his ideas across, Leslie found them borderline rude and offensive, but when I expanded on them with my neurological explanation of the phenomena they referred to, she was able to give me some more female-friendly terminology as well. Of course, that female-friendly terminology was and is of absolutely no use to me as a man, since the Venusian words mean something completely different in Martian.

That is, the politically correct ways of explaining this brain difference, although they are definitely out there in the popular press, simply do not register on most men's consciousness, unless they are first translated to action-oriented Martian-speak at a level that women appear to find crude to say or hear -- which interestingly enough is a side-effect of the very neurological difference in question! It is considerably easier for a man to read DeAngelo's provocative recommendations for action in word and deed and then turn them into a conceptual framework for effective communication with women, than it is to take all the politically-correct description of "le difference" and figure out how to communicate or act from it.

Not, of course, that women are acting on the politically-correct description of the difference either, other than to perhaps feel empowered by it. Even now that I understand the difference and can explain it to Leslie on an intellectual level, she still clearly doesn't "get" how I'm different, which certainly helps explain why women tend to view men as being broken women. But it doesn't matter that much, since I now know some ways to compensate for my inherent deficiency of being a man.

Note: I'm being slightly tongue-in-cheek, here. I only mean it's an inherent deficiency when it comes to communicating with women! In many other areas, it's actually an advantage, and one that especially makes evolutionary sense. In any case, the hypothesis explains (to me, at least) a huge amount of Mars/Venus stuff and stereotypical male/female differences, as well as an awful lot of the classical seduction literature. Fascinating stuff! So thank you, anonymous reader, for bringing it to my attention.

(By the way, I do feel I should clarify that I am not talking about the commenter's discussion of performing mind hacks on another person; my hypothesis has more to do with women's extra abilities relative to men, and what those abilities may imply for what is or isn't a satisfying communication or interaction for them. It isn't about appealing to the more animal layers of the brain, either, or affecting their input tagging, etc.)

Anyway, if my "extra ability" hypothesis is the E=mc**2 for men understanding how to communicate with women, the second hypothesis is basically E=mc**2 for conscious weight control. The link I just gave is a 77-page PDF file of a new and mindboggling theory of how animals and humans regulate body fat levels, that explains why certain diets will seem to work for a while, or for certain people, and then mysteriously fail. It's the only thing I've ever seen that explains why there are so many diets that work for some group of people, some of the time, but almost nothing works for all the people all of the time.

In essence, the theory posits a neurological variable that is very difficult to control or notice in traditional studies: the relationship between a learned association of recognizable taste and digested calories, and the body's "set point" or desired amount of body fat. Because learning is a key factor, and there are several variables that affect learning, this leads to quite a lot of seemingly random variation in the effects of a particular diet.

For example, one simple consequence of his theory (and this is one I'm extrapolating, not one that he's necessarily stated) would be that if you eat a large meal, it could make a huge difference what order you habitually ate the foods in and whether you mixed a bite of this and a bite of that. It also makes an enormous difference how consistent the taste of a food is - which is why mass-produced junk food is more "fattening" (in the sense of raising your body's set point for how fat it "wants" to be) than variably-flavored homemade foods.

What's more, this concept explains several odd phenomena in mine and my wife's personal experiences. When Leslie tried the Atkins diet a number of years ago, she initially lost quite a lot of weight, eating simple meat-and-fat combinations. But she stopped losing weight when she began adding various "low-carb" products to her diet. These products were high-calorie and of uniform taste, which is sufficient to raise the setpoint. It didn't raise it enough to make her regain weight, but it stopped the weight loss. So she drifted off the diet, and eventually regained the weight (since the setpoint went back up when the foods with a weaker taste-calorie link were also removed from the diet).

Indeed, Roberts' theory gives an entirely different reason than Dr. Atkins for why the Atkins diet works, when it works. Atkins theorized that a lowered glycemic index reduces the body's inclination to store food as fat, but Roberts' theory explains that a lowered glycemic index simply helps reduce the learned association between a particular flavor and its associated calories, by increasing the delay between when the flavor is sensed, and when the calories are. When you get most of your calories from foods without such an association, the body assumes that times are lean and lowers the setpoint, which reduces appetite and opens the gates to allow fat to be burned as fuel.

Leslie's early Atkins diet consisted mostly of cooked meats and fats; these take time to digest, resulting in a comparatively low flavor-calorie link. Her later diet included more sauces (increasing the flavor side of the link), Atkins bars and shakes (recognizable taste linked with calories), and occasional "low-carb" treats (ditto). These didn't cause problems right away, though, presumably because (as Roberts' theory explains) unfamiliar foods don't affect the set point until your body learns how many calories they have. In most of the experiments Roberts cites, it appears to take up to a week for the body to learn a food's calorie level, but can vary depending on how closely repeatable the flavor is, the food's glycemic index, etc.

Interestingly, Roberts' theory also readily explains why Leslie and I prefer to eat our meats uncooked, with our strongest taste preference being for meat that has been warmed, or seared on the outside, but without any real "cooking". That's because it's the optimum balance point between digestibility and a recognizable flavor. Thoroughly-cooked meat has a distinct flavor, but takes longer to digest, weakening the flavor-calorie link. Cold raw meat has a less distinct flavor, but is readily digested and more nutritious, thus increasing the link. Meat that has been warmed, but remains almost entirely uncooked is the most flavorful and almost as digestible as the raw meat, making it the most preferable - but also most fattening!

When I first started on a raw diet, I ate mainly cold raw fish with little seasoning and in frequent small meals. Based on Roberts' theory, this should have lowered my fat set point and caused me to lose weight effortlessly - which in fact it did. Eating that way, I lost twenty pounds in about three months, paying no real attention to how much I ate nor actually trying to "diet". (I had chosen to begin eating raw animal protein because my wife's experiment with it had caused her to gain muscle mass without exercise, and that was the effect I was actually looking for.)

However, eating that much quality raw fish was both expensive and logistically difficult to deal with (e.g. storage, spoilage, and getting to the fish market while it was open). Since my wife had had success with raw steak, I decided to try it too. Initially, this had no effect, but then my weight loss slowed down a bit.

Indeed, at some point I realized that eating raw beef was making me gain weight, and I switched back to fish for the bulk of my meals, but I didn't re-lose the weight. However, it's clear to me now that I wasn't controlling the key variables; Roberts' theory predicts a raised fat setpoint simply from the presence of flavorful high-calorie foods in the diet. Indeed, just a difference in what sauces I used with meat versus fish could've made a significant difference to setpoint.

Although I tried various tweaks to my diet, I proceeded to gain back not only the twenty pounds I lost, but another eighty on top of that. This year, however, after a seemingly irrelevant change to my diet, I've lost twenty-five of the extra eighty. The change? My nutritionist explained that you're not supposed to chew raw meat, just tear off chunks with your canines and swallow. That way, it doesn't get exposed to too much alkaline saliva. So I began "wolfing" my meat, and my appetite and weight have been drifting gently downward. This makes sense in Roberts' theory, because it would not only reduce my exposure to the taste of the meat, but it would also mean finishing meals sooner, and thus increase the time difference between the taste and the calories, thus lessening the strength of the link.

Of course, since my nutritionist's advice was directed at digesting the meat faster (less alkaline saliva to counteract my stomach acid), it would seem that the latter effect would be negated by this, leaving only the slight reduction in flavor exposure to explain the moderate weight-loss effect.

Anyway, at this point, I'm eager to test Roberts' theory and see if I can replicate my early experience of rapid weight loss while eating a healthy diet without hunger - but using a significantly different diet than what I was eating then. The simple realization that the critical variable affecting the fat setpoint is the taste-calorie link explains why it's so hard to create a sustained and maintainable weight-loss using any kind of diet based on changing what foods you eat. The simple act of changing the foods you eat can produce a temporary weight loss, but it's only temporary. And changing the foods according to some program may produce a weight loss, but probably not in the same way as the program's theory thinks. This then leads to failure when you make changes that should work according to the program's theory, but don't in practice because they make a change to the time between the flavors and the calories, or which flavors and how many calories.

Ironically, it seems to me that this theory would also actually explain why "fad" diets are fads. When a new diet first comes out, early adopters are forced to actually modify their eating habits, preparing foods themselves or tweaking restaurant fare to adjust it to the program. In the process, they usually end up making at least one change that's big enough to produce some shift of the setpoint, leading to a weightloss that plateaus at some level - perhaps their goal weight if they're lucky.

Next, the diet becomes a "success" - word leaks out, and it becomes the next "big thing" like low-fat or Atkins. Food companies respond by making mass-produced versions of foods that satisfy the diet's requirement, but which have a repeatable taste and still have lots of calories (sugar calories in low-fat products, fat calories in low-carb products). People start eating these new foods, which have no effect on their diet until their body learns to link the new taste with the calories, and boom! No more weight loss, or maybe even weight gain. The "fad" begins to fade, because it doesn't really work any more, even for the previously-successful people who now add the mass-produced foods to their regimen. And thus, the diet quickly falls victim to its own success, and it begins not working at all for the newcomers, who are more likely to try just using the diet products without creating their own dishes.

Then, doctors are quick to proclaim that it's because no diet really works, except calorie restriction for the rest of your life. Because that's the only thing that appears to consistently work - if you're not controlling for the flavor factor, that is.

If this is for real, it could be even more like E=mc**2, in the sense that it's not only an extremely elegant theory, but also that it could be like a nuclear bomb dropped in the middle of the weight control and fast food industries. Easy weight loss with no side effects, no hunger, no extra exercise? Just eat a small snack of some tasteless food a couple times a day to lower your setpoint and appetite? Crazy!

At this point, I haven't tried it myself, but I'm definitely going to. I won't be adding any new foods or removing any (except maybe sauces), just experimenting with the sequences, combinations, and timing in accordance with my understanding of the flavor-calorie-time dynamics described by the paper. It sounds like it just might be the ultimate in mind-body hacking.

If you want to try it yourself, I do suggest reading the paper, rather than simply following the various blog posts floating around describing this as a new "diet". There have been interesting comments on some of those blog posts from people who tried the "diet" but it's also obvious from their comments that how they did it actually ran counter to the theory. For example, one person drank coffee with their tasteless food - thereby linking the coffee taste with the calories and blowing the whole thing. Another discovered that brushing their teeth too soon after the food created a link between the toothpaste flavor and the calories, thereby blowing their results. The news media are describing this as the "oil and water diet" or "sugar water diet", as though the oil or sugar water are the magic, ignoring the critical learned link between taste and calories.

The last item, I just want to mention in passing before I wrap this up. I was going through my bookshelves, and ran across a powerful book that I haven't read or used in a number of years: Corporate Tides, by Robert Fritz. I opened it up near a page that described his Ninth Law of Organizational Structure: "In the absence of a senior organizing principle, the organization will oscillate." And I thought to myself, "wow, is that profound".

You see, this is a rule of personal structure as well as organizational. All of the structure laws and axioms in Corporate Tides apply to individual humans and their goals, not just to organizational structure. In the absence of a senior organizing principle - a purpose, a goal, a vision - people do oscillate.

I used to deal with this all the time both as a manager and a consultant, because I would constantly try to force people to pick the single most important thing, and refuse to accept that there can be more than one "most" important thing. Fritz's commentary about his ninth law gives examples of ways that organizations end up oscillating when they try to "balance" their goals instead of prioritizing them. An organization (or person) that knows what things are more important than others is able to act without hesitation, smoothly moving almost automatically towards their goals.

The trick about prioritizing versus balancing, by the way, is to realize that it doesn't mean you don't get to have your lower priorities. It just means that when there's a conflict you're willing to let go of one (perhaps only partially, perhaps only temporarily) to get the other. If you try to "balance" instead, though, then you'll forever be oscillating, because that's what focusing on your balance is: moving back and forth in response to outside circumstances to stay upright. On the other hand, if your focus is on moving forward, it's much easier to keep your balance as part of the process, like a person walking on a narrow rail instead of trying to stand still on it.