Category Archives: N of 1 Testing

Smart Drugs Do Not Make Me Smart

I thought I would try a nootropic, or “smart drug,” to see how it would work for me. I really like the podcast Smart Drug Smarts, by Jesse Lawler. It is well produced, informative and entertaining. Jesse is great, however, he does not shy away from pitching his products as in each episode he encourages you to buy his nootropic, Nexus.

Smart Drugs Do Not Make Me Smart

Nexus ingredients include Aniracetam, CDP Choline, Phosphatidylserine, and Pycnogenol®. On the website the product claims to “enhance cognition, beat stress, and sharpen concentration.” It goes on to claim that it created with fast thinking and neuroprotectivity in mind. The capsules are not cheap. At $1.00 a capsule and a recommended daily dose of 2 capsules, you are in for $60 a month, or $55 if you subscribe. At that cost, it had better work.

My Question

Would Nexus improve my cognitive performance?

What I Did

I tested myself using eight cognitive tests in the Quantified-Mind app after either taking Nexus or not. I then compared scores of the group of tests where I took Nexus to the scores where I did not take Nexus to see if the smart drug improved my test scores.

How I Did It

I created a spreadsheet column of randomly assigned numbers between o and 1. Each day in the afternoon I checked the next number in the column. It if was 1, I took two caplets of Nexus. If it was 0, I did not take Nexus. Thirty minutes after I took the capsule (or not), I would open the Quantified-Mind app and take eight tests. Those tests took approximately 15 minutes. They ranged from memory tests like dual-n-back to attention and reaction tests. I took down each test score for all eight tests and put them in the spreadsheet. After 19 tests, I compared the averages in the two groups and did a student’s TTest to see if the differences in readings were significant.

What I Learned

Smart drugs do not make me smart. Of the eight tests I took during each session, there was no significant difference in the readings between if I had taken Nexus or I had not. Here are my scores:

Smart Drugs Do Not Make Me Smart

You can see that none of the tests had a statistically significant difference. If there was, the TTest P value would have been less than .05. You can argue that the sample size was too small. If we discard the TTest and just look at the averages, my scores seemed to go down in all but two of the categories.

Of interest is that on one test I seemed to do better – Attentional Focus. On that test you stare at two lines and tap a key when one gets longer. It can be difficult to maintain staring at the lines and the Nexus seemed to improve my averages there. On all the others, where I had some cognitive task to perform, my scores seemed to be degraded.

So I guess if I had an important report to write and I took Nexus I would stay focussed on the keyboard and keep typing, but the words that came out might not make as much sense.

One of the things I learned from Smart Drug Smarts podcast is that a test of one brain…is a test of one brain. The mixture found in Nexus might work for you. And I will continue being a fan of Jesse and his podcast. It is intelligent, fun, and informative. I just won’t buy his nootropics because they don’t work for me.

One thing I did learn in several sessions I had to throw out is that a lack of sleep trashes cognitive performance. On those days that I had had a poor night sleep the night before my scores were awful. I threw out those sessions, and I learned that sleep trumps nootropics with respect to performance. So in the future if I get a good nights sleep, and have an inexpensive cup of coffee in the morning my brain will be in good enough shape to handle that work report without having to resort to smart drugs.

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Meditation Breakthrough With Brain.fm

As a followup to my earlier work on binaural beats, I did another tracking study using Brain.fm. After fine tuning the approach and trying it for more than a month, I had a meditation breakthrough with Brain.fm.  I found a hugely useful technique to help me have a smoother wakeup.

breakthrough with brain.fm
What it might look like to wake up without the brain working to full capacity.

Each morning I conduct a tracking routine that includes heart rate variability (HRV), blood pressure, blood glucose and various body dimension measurements. In my last study, I had used Brain.fm for five-minute sessions without any discernable effect on my physiology. With feedback from the founders of Brain.fm, I retooled the tracking approach and tried again.

What I Did

The advice I got was that it takes 10 minutes to entrain the brain using binaural beats. I redid the tracking study so that I added a 10-minute session prior to taking a five-minute HRV reading. I wanted to ensure I had enough time listening to the binaural beats so the would be effective.

To determine the efficacy of Brain.fm’s binaural beat meditation soundtrack, I compared it to similar sounding music without binaural beats embedded. I wanted to compare the effect on HRV after 10 minutes of binaural beats vs an identical period of time without the beats.

How I Did It

I created a Google spreadsheet with a randomly generated number (0 or 1) for each day in the study. On waking, I would look at the sheet to determine whether to use Brain.fm (1) or a Pandora station I called “meditation” (0) that I set up with reference artists Deva Premal and Krishna Das.

If I used Brain.fm I would turn on the unguided meditation for 10 minutes and sit relaxed with normal respiration.

breakthrough with brain.fm

On completion of the 10 minute session, I put on the Polar H7 heart rate belt and the HRV Logger from Marco Altini and took a five-minute HRV reading while continuing to listen to the Brain.fm binaural beats.

On days when I used the Pandora station I would conduct the exact same procedure listening to the meditative music without binaural beats. On completion for both music sources, I would log my rMSSD measurement in the Google spreadsheet.

What I Learned

I was unable to find a significant difference in my physiological state when using music with binaural beats or music without binaural beats. Across 30 measurements, my average rMSSD with binaural beats was 50.9 vs 49.8 without binaural beats. The T Test showed that there was no statistically significant difference between the two soundtrack types (p=.87).

The Brain.fm site says that its binaural beats would have an immediate effect, and it appears that immediate means at least longer than 10 minutes. As a tactical approach to calming the body or the mind on waking, I don’t find it practical to have a preparatory session longer than 10 minutes. So for me, Brain.fm’s binaural beats are not a good tool to assist in my morning meditation.

The Breakthrough With Brain.fm

Though the soundtrack with embedded binaural beats did not have a discernable effect on my HRV readings, I did have a breakthrough with Brain.fm. My continued use of the product showed me without question that some form of music played during morning deep breathing work made it more likely I would engage in the activity and stick with it once I started.

There is something pleasant and energizing about sitting quietly for 10 minutes while my physical system comes online and wakes up. I found myself getting out of bed more readily knowing the session was the first thing I would do. Once I started the session it seemed to go quickly. Often I was surprised when my device indicated I had successfully completed the session.

For my morning sessions, I will still use Brain.fm. It has a pleasing format, it easy to use and I like the soundtrack. It is packaged well enough to be ready for use. I am realistic about it jacking my brain with frequencies in less than 10 minutes. That does not happen. Sometimes, however, relaxing tunes is just good enough to make a product useful and for that, Brain.fm is a winner.

Binaural Beats Had No Five Minute Payoff

I conducted an N of 1 study on the effect of binaural beats during a five minute meditation.  My colleague Tim Hanrahan had turned me on to Brain.fm after having written a post about them.

I have always had a soft spot for binaural beats since I discovered the Monroe Institute and hemispherical synchronization while a cadet at West Point. As an aspiring Intelligence Officer, the promise of listening to some frequencies and being upgraded to being able to do remote viewing was too good an opportunity to resist. I envisioned a career of thwarting the Soviet threat armed only my mind and a Sony Walkman. I thought I would be the one to write books like this:

PSYCHIC SOLDIER

But alas, many hours of listening to my special cassette tapes never yielded enough remote viewing skill to be assigned to the psychic corps. All my snooping ended up being electronic. Ho hum. With this background using binaural beats I was ready to try a far less grandiose use case using Brain.fm’s service.

My Question

During a five minute meditation, will using binaural beats be effective in increasing my heart rate variability (HRV) and thus my physiological calm during the session?

What I Did

For 52 sessions of five minutes each, I measured my HRV while either listening to Brain.fm’s unguided meditation soundtrack or to no sound at all.

brain.fm

To ensure I controlled for differences in time of day and physiological condition, at each sitting I did two consecutive five minute sessions, one with the beats and the other without. I used a random number generator to determine whether I used beats first or second in each session. This way each beats session had a corresponding control session with the same physical conditions present.

How I Did It

I used the Brain.fm site while wearing a standard set of earbud headphones and wearing a Polar H7 heart rate belt bluetooth connected to Marco Altini’s Heart Rate Variability Logger app. The HRV measurement I tracked was rMSSD.

All readings were sitting relaxed in a chair breathing at a constant rate, and mental strategy was just the simple “in/out” verbalization of basic meditation.

At the end of the period, I looked at the difference in rMSSD using both a TTest and Wilcoxon ranked sum test.

What I Learned

For me, binaural beats had no five minute payoff. There was no significant difference in my HRV levels when using them or sitting in silence. Both the TTest and the Wilcoxon confirmed this with P values of .98 and .52 respectively.

My subjective experience was that the time in meditation seemed to go much faster when listening to the beats and the associated music. Perhaps the mind was engaged in some way and in doing that the experience of time quickened.

My interest in using binaural beats was as a quick modifier to  my physiological state prior to a meeting or one on one conversation. It would have been useful if I could do a quick frequency induced calming session like I can with BreatheSync. For that specific use binaural beats would not contribute any value.

I reached out to the founders of Brain.fm for their thoughts.They engaged in the discussion and wrote that entrainment does not begin until 10 minutes into the session. I had never seen that written anywhere but I have definitely confirmed that nothing happens at the five minute mark. They also shared a peer reviewed study on the use of brain entrainment to elevate HRV. In that study, the participants listened to the frequencies for 20 minutes and had their HRV measured.

Though I won’t think of binaural beats as a useful preparatory tool at the office I am still interested in seeing if I can replicate the effect reported in the study. I am designing a followup to that end. If you would like updates on this and other studies, make sure you sign up for the QuantXLaFont newsletter and stay tuned here as we look for truly effective ways to heighten alertness and performance.

N of 1 Testing: Butter Redeemed

I had a self-created story about butter. It was such a strong story that it was changing my behavior around what I ate. I had come to believe butter “gummed me up” and after eating it my body would react by feeling lousy.

bloay

Two months ago I transitioned to a low carb, medium protein, ketogenic diet. As I described at the time, the experience of weaning myself off carbohydrates involved feeling poorly for a number of the early days. As butter was a good source of fats I was eating a lot of it, so I started associated feeling lousy with butter. And I developed the story, “This butter is throwing me a beating.”

I didn’t like the story because it cut down on my food options. And I knew from my early QS studies that the majority of my stories were self-induced fictions.  Was this story about butter a fiction or did it have some basis in fact?

My Question

Did my body feel lousy after eating butter?

What I Did

Each morning I would take butter or an alternative source of fat with my coffee. The alternative was usually flaxseed or coconut oil. I randomly determined which I would take each day. Four hours after my coffee I would capture how I was feeling in a Google Spreadsheet via a Google Form tool I call my DIY Tracker.

How I Did It

I used a Google Spreadsheet to generate a random “one” or “zero” for each day in the period. This gave me instructions on what to put in my coffee each morning, butter or the alternative. This was important because I needed to not choose what I took based on some bias, or more importantly, the story about butter. If I felt rough in the morning and arbitrarily chose the alternative fat source because of my belief  butter  would make me feel worse I would skew the data. So I stuck to my random schedule when I took my coffee after a workout at around 7am.

I captured how I felt each morning at 11am using my DIY Tracker. This provided my data for how I was reacting to butter and the alternative.

IMG_0112

I threw out data that did not meet my control criteria, which is a fancy way to say if something out of the norm was happening I did not use that data. If I did not follow the randomly generated instruction or the amount of fat I consumed was not within a set range, I considered the reading invalid. I also only included readings on days I had exercised for 20 to 30 minutes prior to the coffee.

After thirty-seven days I had twenty-seven good data points. I separated the list into a “butter” and “other” list and ran a T-Test for butter and a value for feeling lousy that was embedded in the way the DIY Tracker poll solicited information.

What I Learned

Butter was redeemed. I compared it both to an average score that would indicate I was consistently feeling lousy and to the oil based source of fat. The way I gathered information in the DIY tracker a consistent score of “2” (Yawny, tired) would have shown I was feeling lousy.

The data showed I wasn’t consistently feeling lousy. There was a statistically significant difference between the feeling score after eating butter (avg of 3.6) and the expected average score of feeling lousy (avg of 2.5). The T-Test returned a value of .004. Within the data I only felt lousy on two of the 27 days.

When I consumed the oil based sources of fat my average feeling score was higher than with butter, but the results were not statistically significant when I compared oil to butter (T-Test returned .17). So butter remains in the morning coffee mixture rotation.
butter

Behold the redeemed!

Try Your Own Test

Do you have a food story? A cherished belief that you can’t eat a certain food because it makes you feel bloated, or bad? N of 1 Testing is quite easy to set up when you have a specific question you are asking based on a story you have. Get free instructions on how to create you own DIY Tracker or we can help you out at QuantXLaFont.