The Price We Pay for Untangling Variables

I asked someone yesterday whether she knows what changes about how she feels after she drinks caffeine, and she said: “I have no idea.” She then asked, “What has caffeine in it?” I explained that tea, coffee, and chocolate are perhaps the most common ones. I also added that these substances do things like increase concentration, though chocolate has a host of other active ingredients as well (e.g., theobromine). She seemed to know a bit of what I meant about chocolate, but showed no acknowledgement of the effects of tea or coffee. I then asked her whether she consumes tea or coffee on a regular basis, thinking maybe I could then transition to asking her whether she tends to drink tea or coffee at certain times and not others, to determine what her pattern of consumption is. She said: “Well, I don’t really drink coffee. But I do drink a lot of tea at home.” I asked her what kind of tea she usually drinks, and her answer was: “Rooibos.” I then of course pointed out that rooibos doesn’t contain any caffeine, and then the conversation ended shortly thereafter. Later on, however, she purchased a bottle of green tea, and that prompted me to ask her whether she was craving a bit of caffeine. “This has caffeine?”, she replied. “I was just thirsty!” Without translating my thoughts into words for her to hear, I just pondered the fact that we seem to have a different definition for that term. To me the word thirsty refers to how I would feel upon deciding to drink something especially hydrating, and tea isn’t so; it’s a diuretic.

Caffeine is one of the easiest when it comes to tying the substance to the mental effects (generally people know that coffee makes it easier to focus, for instance). But even here there are a lot of individuals who seem in the dark, but only consciously. I frequently observe that people who claim that they ‘merely like the taste’ of certain caffeinated beverages will nevertheless conform their usage to a pattern that makes sense based on the neurological effects and not necessarily based on the idea that it ‘merely tastes good’. Or, to be more exact, I should say that analogous to what I mentioned in the previous paragraph about the word ‘thirsty’, it seems like these people are defining the phrase ‘merely tastes good’ differently than I am. When I think of making my choices of what to eat at what time based merely on the taste, I imagine trying to push out of my mind every single consideration other than the momentary taste sensation. But when the average person claims that they consume a certain food ‘simply because it tastes good’, they’re talking instead about a much fuller package; humans subconsciously associate present sensations with future effects, and thus is how we acquire tastes. A man finds that although whisky tastes brutal the first few times, the mental effects are favorable; this puts into motion an association system where his experience of the taste of whisky starts to change in a positive direction due to mentally tying the present experience of tasting whisky to the short-term effects of having drank whisky. This happens in all sorts of facets of life beyond just food, like where weightlifting feels painful until you internalize the fact that weightlifting now means feeling more energetic in the short term and building a better physique in the long time; thenceforth the pain turns into desire.

In other words, when I think of making decisions based on ‘merely what tastes good’, I automatically start thinking of what it would be like to make choices about what to eat in a way that ignores all those extraneous associations and focuses only on what the taste would present to someone who hasn’t had any of this taste acquisition. Why? Well, because I’m just reacting to how people phrase their answers to me. I ask them whether they drink a certain caffeinated beverage because it makes it easier to concentrate, and they answer: “No, it’s just because I like the taste.” Well okay, but their experience of the taste is conditioned by subconscious associations with the mental effects of the substances which produces the taste. More precisely I should say that they just don’t have conscious access to the data that I’m asking them to articulate, nor do they have conscious knowledge that such subconscious data exists. The way we experience taste in the moment is based in significant part on what we subconsciously associate with that taste over the next minutes, hours, and so forth. People who claim that they drink coffee just because it tastes good don’t realize that they drink coffee in a pattern that makes sense based on its mental effects, rather than drinking it in the pattern they default to with, say, avocados, which also taste good to most people. For instance they tend to drink coffee at cafes while getting a bit of work done on their computer or having a conversation with their friend, rather than while sunbathing or sitting in a hot bath.

But surely plenty of people do understand exactly what caffeine does, so what’s my point? Basically, it’s not just tea, coffee, and chocolate that have mental effects, but also grains, fruit, dairy, sugar, and so forth (not to mention the other obvious ones like alcohol). These substances change all sorts of parameters, from ability to keep composure to likelihood of going on a tangent and then forgetting about the original topic. While most people would say that they’re not in touch with their body and mind enough to be able to tell which substances do what (again often with the exception of the much more clearly mind-altering substances like caffeine and alcohol), or in many cases would go further and either disagree that, say, grains, do anything of note to one’s psychological parameters, or otherwise would just act bewildered about what I’m ever trying to communicate; despite this being the case, all of these individuals systematically make decision after decision during their everyday life that shows that they do indeed understand on a deep level how food affects psychology. It’s just that instead of consciously thinking about the mental effects of consuming certain substances, they just subconsciously follow the norms of society.

Through the process of cultural evolution, society bestows onto the individual a set of pre-packaged activities that are considered normal, and these activities contain not only foods and drinks used in certain patterns but also a large array of other things.

For example:

  • It’s normal to consume tea or coffee at a cafe, and cafes usually aren’t open at 3 AM.
  • At bars people drink alcohol, and although there might be non-alcoholic beverages available you’ll often be made to feel awkward if you try to order one.
  • At business meetings, people often consume caffeinated beverages such as tea or coffee, and if you pulled out a flask of whisky you’d be considered insane.
  • At birthday parties people eat cake, whereas if you ate a neon-colored fluffy sugar-laden slice of cake at 10 AM on Monday morning while doing paperwork in your cubicle you’d get weird looks from your co-workers.
  • Milk chocolate is a classic substance to consume as a comfort food, while eating it at the crack of dawn before you start your work day would be strange.
  • Eating brightly colored desserts on a regular basis might be seen as cute if you’re a young girl, but a masculine man would in most cases start to feel the weight of social pressure if he began that habit.

And these aren’t just arbitrary social conventions; they’ve evolved because they make sense. It really is more masculine to eat heavy steaks than fluffy cakes, as the former’s mental and physical effects are compatible with masculine headspace and the latter’s aren’t.

The bottom line is that most people don’t have conscious knowledge of the mental effects of food because they don’t have in their mind associations of the type [food X] -> [mental effect A], but rather just associations like [activity X] -> [mental effect A].

For instance:

  • They don’t know what sugary desserts do on their own, but they do know how they feel when they go to a birthday party (where cake made with heavily refined wheat and sugar is usually served).
  • They may not think about what tea or coffee does in particular, but they know how productive they are when they go to a cafe with a book or their laptop (since they would order coffee and also have other favorable factors in place such as a co-working atmosphere created by other people studying and working too).

In other words, anyone who has learned to live well in this world has developed a deep understanding of the mental effects of a large range of foods and beverages, but only indirectly—only as part of societally pre-determined packages that contain both patterns of food consumption and patterns of other actions. Cafes where there are a lot of people studying, cafes where people all order brightly colored desserts, sophisticated restaurants that are dimly lit, business meetings, university classes, takeout on Friday night with a group of friends, nightclubs, bars, and so on and so forth; all of these are culturally evolved activity types tied to locations and other types of context, and all of them have certain types of food and drink considered normal by societal norms and others which aren’t. The average person may not find it natural to articulate the difference in mental effects between a refined-sugar-laden cheap alcoholic drink and a high-quality red wine, but surely they’ll realize that they feel very different going to a sophisticated Italian restaurant at 7 PM vs. a nightclub at 1 AM. And again, these aren’t just arbitrary social conventions; certain foods are considered normal in one situation but not another because their mental effects are more compatible with that situation than the other. The unconscious forces of cultural evolution identify the effects, and then the citizens unconsciously act out the deep order of society through their acquisition of a subconscious feel for social norms.

With all of that said: If most people have associations between types of activities (with food being only one of the variables) and the way they feel, then how did I end up with associations between the foods themselves and the mental effects?

The answer is that I systematically untangled the variables by doing deeply weird things. I systematically broke apart of the standard societally evolved packaged activities, randomly mixing and matching the various factors and observing the effects:

  • I attempted to retain my serious intellectual demeanor where I do extremely long-strand analysis on various topics while consuming cinnamon buns and other such foods.
  • I saw what it would be like to pass on eating altogether in social situations where it’s considered abnormal to not partake in the food.
  • I tried to work on intellectual projects while in a fasted state.
  • I did my best to maintain masculine composure with women while consuming traditionally feminine foods or even foods that people associate with small children.
  • I tried drinking alcohol instead of caffeine while sitting at my laptop studying a serious subject or doing technical work.
  • I gave a serious shot to fueling heavy lifting with cookies rather than with steak.

Essentially, I tried to turn everything upside down, doing not what was prescribed by the social system but rather isolating the variables and throwing them into various unusual combinations and paying attention to the results. And of course the result was what I alluded to in the title of this article: I paid the price that one so often pays for untangling variables. For example, while the average person consumes chocolate-chip cookies only in situations where they’re trying to have low-pressure fun, I attempted to fuel a masculine personality with a steady supply of cookies and I found that there was only so much that I could do to fight the effects; I found that cookies do indeed have mental and physical effects which are incompatible with serious masculinity, and that there’s a reason so many cultures contain the idea that serious masculine men generally pass on dessert.

However, beyond the short-term destruction of habit structure, there was an important reason that I did this. While most people simply stumble into engaging in the normal activity bundles prescribed by modern society, I didn’t want to do this. I wanted to think independently, and to forge my own path. For that I needed to untangle all the variables, and figure out not only what what each substance does, but also what each other variable does. For instance, why are nightclubs and bars usually dimly lit, while supermarkets and 24-hours fast-food restaurants often brightly lit? Why do certain types of men swear by heavy lifting and others consider long-distance running to be part of their identity? Why do people wear suits to work and jeans in casual settings? Why do people sit with a certain posture in on situation and another in a different context? And so on and so forth. If I can untangle all of these factors, and see the direct mental effects of each common type of food, the direct mental effects of the various types of exercise, the significance of dressing one way or another, etc., then I’m in a position to distill all of the pre-determined activity bundles (e.g., the bar scene, business meetings, nightclubs, the bar scene, ‘watching the game with the guys’) into a list of ingredients that I can then mix and match to my own purposes. Rather than blindly and subconsciously following the prevailing culture, I can decide where to participate in the culture and where to ‘create my own culture’.

The conclusion is that while most people don’t have conscious awareness that many of the foods and drinks that they consume on a daily basis have mental effects, they do have subconscious awareness of this fact, for otherwise they wouldn’t be able to orient themselves in the world in a competent way. They act out deeply ordered patterns of behavior which make use of the mental effects of various foods and beverages, although they’d be hard-pressed to articulate the significance of their own decisions. And this is simply how it goes when an individual takes the path of following tradition, rather than going their own way and creating their own habits from scratch. They know the mental effects of what they consume on a regular basis, but the way they categorize is different: Rather than correlating [food] with [mental effect], they correlate [socially prescribed activity] with [how their mind functions, what their emotions are, and so on]. Thinking in terms of the mental effects of food rather than what it’s like to do one normal activity vs. another is a matter of thinking independently instead of collectively. It’s your choice how you would like to conceptualize the world, and how you would like to make decisions about your personality, behavior, and interests. Untangling variables doesn’t come without costs, but that’s just how it goes to take a clean step outside the social order and do your own thinking about what to do and what to not do.