Adam's Brain Dump

A random downside of connecting too many things to the internet: A server error meant that some owners of Roomba vacuums couldn’t vacuum their house. Or, even more terrifyingly, tell them to stop cleaning, especially for those that had used the child lock feature to disable the hardware stop button.

Hopefully unrelated: remember that time people got drunk and attached big knives to the front of their Roombas for their very own robot wars?


How your expectations affect the way your body processes food - summary of a chapter from "The Expectation Effect"

I recently read The Expectation Effect, a fascinating book looking at how what you expect influences what actually happens with regard to your body and life.

Below is a fairly detailed summary of chapter 6 (prioritised as being most potentially relevant to my work). I’m sure I’ll be talking a lot more about the rest of this book in future. But for now, the main topic of this chapter was how your beliefs and expectations influence how your body and brain react to what you eat - potentially useful knowledge for anyone interested in healthy eating.


Our brain’s predictive processing means that our expectation of what nutrients a food contains directly affects how our body responds to that food, including our:

  • digestion, i.e. the breaking down and absorption of nutrients in the gut.
  • metabolism, i.e. how we process the food to power our cells.

If we believe we’re eating fewer calories than we really are, our body responds to that belief. The brain induces a deprivation mindset, and we feel less satiated, more hungry and inclined to expend less energy in order to preserve fat stores.

It’s known that appetite is controlled in part by activity in the digestive system - bottom-up information. However the brain also seems to need top-down info e.g. memory and expectation, to make sense of the digestive information input in order to create the appropriate feelings of hunger or satiation.

Altering how we think about food can change the brain’s assessment of what it has eaten.

Memory

A patient who had lost the ability to form new memories, was asked to rate how hungry he was on a scale of 0 -100. He rated his hunger similarly both before and after consuming a meal. After two meals in a row he felt only partly satiated.

This suggests that our appetite is not solely governed by “fullness signals” from the stomach. It’s also influenced by our memory of what we ate.

Milder forgetfulness is also associated with over-eating.

In an experiment asking students to taste test cookies, they consumed 45% less if they had first been prompted to remember their lunch by noting down what they’d eaten.

Working, watching TV or using the internet whilst eating may create a distraction that impairs our memory of what we ate, leading to eating larger meals and more snacks afterwards.

Expectation

The sense of fullness and satisfaction participants had from eating either 300ml or 500ml of soup was largely based on how much soup they thought they’d eaten, rather than how much they actually had.

Participants who believed they’d eaten a 3 egg omelette felt more satiated than those who thought they’d eaten a 1 egg omelette, even though they’d eaten the same amount.

Patients who believed that they’ve undergone obesity-related surgery, e.g. stomach stapling or gastric balloon, experienced 70% of the benefits of the operation (reduced appetite, higher weightloss) even though the actual surgery never took place.

Presentation

The presentation of manufactured foods can disrupt our brain’s ability to assess its contents:

  • The brain remembers eating a lot less after drinking a small bottled smoothie vs eating the equivalent portions of fruit, giving the expectation of hunger later in the day.
  • Several studies show that the exact same food leads to lower satiety when it is labelled “healthy” as opposed to when it’s labelled “hearty”.
  • The more viscous a drink is the more filling we expect it to be, and the higher our physiological response.
  • Iron absorption from meals that have been pureed were much lower than the same meal presented in its standard form.
  • “Healthy” snacks may be counterproductive - participants given a “healthy” chocolate bar were hungrier afterwards than those given nothing.

Beliefs

When presented with a choice of 2 items such as a McDonald’s hamburger and a 8.5oz grilled ocean code, most people think the burger has more calories even though they’re about equal, over or underestimating the true value by up to 50%. People who have greater mismatches in their estimates are on average heavier.

People who agree more strongly with statements such as “There is usually a trade-off between healthiness and tastiness” tend to have higher BMIs.

Mechanisms

Ghrelin is a hormone secreted by the stomach when it’s empty.

High levels induce our body to:

  • lower its metabolic resting rate, burning less energy.
  • store body fat.
  • feel lethargic, so we don’t waste energy on exercise.

Participants who had drank a milkshake marketed as indulgent saw lower ghrelin levels, as expected after a meal. But those who drank the same milkshake presented as healthy and light, saw very little change in ghrelin.

Brain areas associated with energy regulation are also affected. People given a low-calorie drink labelled as a treat had a stronger hypothalamus response when it was labelled as a “treat” as opposed to “healthy”,

Expectations also affect the movement of food in the gut and our insulin responses.

The environment

Our environment reinforces the idea that healthy foods are less satisfying. An analysis of 26 American chain restaurants that offer “healthy eating” options saw that they were less likely to have descriptions relating to enjoyment, vice, decadence, texture and taste. They were more likely to be described in terms evoking simplicity, thinness, or deprivation.

In one study where these healthy options were described with words evoking enjoyment and indulgent, consumption of them increased 29% and were likely to lead to lower snacking afterwards. Adding the words “fuller for longer” to a yoghurt pot increased people’s satiety for 3 hours.

Low socioeconomic status is a risk factor for obesity. There are many potential explanations. One study showed that when people are primed to feel poorer and less secure they tend to choose sweeter snacks and have bigger portion sizes, corresponding to observable changes in the body and brain. People’s feelings of social and financial insecurity induced a sense of deprivation which influenced their hormonal response. For people living with this sense of vulnerability long-term, it’s possible that this response could increase your likelihood of obesity even if your food choices were healthy.

The belief that healthy foods are unsatisfying isn’t universal.

That belief is strongly held in the US and to a lesser extent the UK and Australia - but the opposite view is more common in France. It’s been shown that labelling a food as healthy in France doesn’t reduce the satisfaction and pleasure as much as elsewhere.

French people also have fewer negative sentiments associated with treats. When asked to describe which word is more associated with ice-cream, more US people pick “fattening” whereas French people more commonly pick “delicious”.

This attitude seems to affect their eating choice and body responses. French people tend to choose smaller servings and spend more time eating them.

The average BMI in France (25.3) is lower than other countries like Germany (26.3), Australia (27.2), the UK (27.3) and especially the US (28.8).

The typical French diet contains higher proportion of saturated fat from butter, cheese, eggs and cream than the UK/US equivalent, yet French people are less likely to suffer from coronary heart disease. There are many possible reasons but expectation could be one. People who believe that they are more at risk of a heart attack are 4x as likely to suffer from heart disease even controlling for other factors.

Eating is not a simple chemical process.

…exactly the same item can be nourishing and satiating, or unfulfilling and nutritionally empty – in large part because of our memories of what we have eaten, our impressions of what it contains and the meanings that we ascribe to it.

Some ways to apply these findings

  • Avoid the liquid calories in sweetened drinks.
    • The satiety of most drinks is low
    • If you must drink juices and smoothies, make them yourself so you are more aware of the food that went into them - research suggests doing this may increase your satiation.
  • Maximise the pleasure in the food you eat. Flavour and texture are important during weight loss as the resulting sense of indulgence increases satiety and hormonal response to food. The lack of later snacking due to greater satiety will outweigh the small number of extra calories this my require.
    • Spicy foods or intensely umami ingredients are good options.
    • Avoid food that gives a sense of deprivation.
    • Thoroughly enjoy any treats - feeling guilt won’t help. One study showed that dieters who associated treats such as cake with guilt gained weight vs those who associated them with celebration progressed towards their goals.
    • Do not label foods as sinful, toxic etc.
  • Visualise and anticipate what you’re going to eat in advance.
    • Participants who were asked to imagine the taste, smell and texture of sweet treats first opted to have a smaller slice of cake when one was offered.
  • Avoid distractions when eating.
  • Eat slowly, savoring each mouthful. The greater sensory experience of eating will trigger a stronger hormonal reaction to the food.
  • Remember what you have eaten.
    • If you feel tempted to snack then first recall what it was like to eat your last meal. Your brain may update its predictions of energy balance, making you feel less hungry.

Finished reading: The Expectation Effect: How Your Mindset Can Change Your World by David Robson 📚.

An fascinating, scientifically-oriented, book, examining how your expectations and beliefs can alter a huge array of vital life outcomes based on your brain’s role as a “prediction machine”. Think of the placebo effect, but all-encompassing. There are also several tips on how to leverage this effect to enhance your time on this planet. I’m sure I’ll be writing more on this soon.


No paper published yet so tbd, but researchers claim to have developed a smartphone app that can detect Covid substantially more accurately than the current Covid lateral flow tests. The app analyses people’s voices using a technique known as the Mel-spectrogram.


Queen Elizabeth II died today.


Not long after the UK temperature hit a horrible new high, a new study reports that the prevalence of hate-speech filled tweets increases as the temperature becomes more extreme in either direction.

Seems we really need to find a way to keep the climate at about 15-20 degrees C.

Figure 1 from the study showing an increasing number of hate tweets at hot or cold extremes of temperature

A colleague introduced me to Super Auto Pets 🎮, so now I’m addicted. Line up some cute animals in a row and see if they can beat another person’s equivalent. Feels like plenty of strategy to think about.

You can play it for free in your web browser, or on Steam, iOS or Android.

Part screenshot of Super Auto Pets

It happened…we’ve got a new Prime Minister, Liz Truss 😩.

Her victory speech felt decidely unconciliatory to anyone who isn’t an ardent Ayn Rand capitalism fan.

The only redeeming feature was that people didn’t applaud fast enough after she extolled Boris for his “achievements”.


It’s known that performing acts of kindness makes both the receiver and the giver happier. But new research shows that givers systematically underestimate the increase in positivity that the receivers actually feel after experiencing the kindness.

So if you’re ever in doubt about whether someone would actually appreciate you doing something nice for them, do it anyway - it’ll probably make more of a difference than you expect.


From today’s Guardian:

Shown calculations that her planned reversal of a recent rise in national insurance would benefit top earners by about £1,800 a year, and the lowest earner by about £7, and asked if this was fair, Truss said: “Yes, it is fair.”

Seems I have a very different definition of ‘fair’ than our probable next prime minister.

Here’s the data she was shown:


Jason Allen won an art competition with this picture, which was generated via the Midjourney AI. I wrote more about that, trying to figure out how I even feel about it all, over here.


One of my favourite charts found in the wild, both in terms of subject matter and presentation.

Chart showing belief in ghosts negatively associates with education level

Watched EastEnders 📺 for the first time in maybe a decade. Astonished to see that I recognise almost all the characters from before. They just look surprisingly old, as I guess we all must do!


Learning how to drink scotch in Edinburgh

Had a great time visiting the Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh. Thinking we were going for some kind of formal lesson in the art of scotch tasting, we were somewhat taken back by part one involving getting into a little cart which took us around an fairly trippy exhibition where a ghost explains all sorts of things about the production of scotch.

Later on we entered the Diageo Claive Vidiz collection, which apparently includes a total of 3,384 bottles of whiskey, for some actual tasting.

You don’t get to try a bit from all 3000+ bottles unfortunately. Some are pretty rare. The one in the middle below with the colourful artwork on the label apparently sells for around £80,000, if I remember correctly.

Although I guess that’s a bargain compared to a bottle that sold for £1.1 million in auction a few years ago I guess. I suppose billionaires needed something to do with their money before NFTs were a thing.

The oldest ones in the collection were these two, from the turn of the twentieth century.

Whilst it looks like someone’s drunk a fair bit of especially the right hand one, apparently that’s not the case - these are technically unopened bottles. What’s missing there is the ‘angel’s share’, an ongoing amount of whiskey that evaporates into the atmosphere over time if not perfectly sealed.

I decided I’m a big fan of whiskies from the Islay region.


Contrary to the stereotype, new research involving frequent cannabis users finds no evidence of lower motivation than their age / sex matched non-cannabis using counterparts.

To quote the lead author:

Our work implies that … people who use cannabis are no more likely to lack motivation or be lazier than people who don’t.


The R library installr provides a super simple way to update your version of R to the latest if you’re using Windows.

Simply run:

install.packages('installr')
library("installr")
updateR()

I hear that the updateR package does something similar on Mac, but I’ve not tried it.


I’m sure I’m late to the party on this one, but if you’re a Substack newsletter reader then you can clear up your email inbox by subscribing to newsletters via RSS instead of email. Just add /feed to your publication’s home page, e.g. whatever.substack.com/feed.

There’s then a “Disable all emails” option in the Substack settings - tho beware that this seems to unsubscribe you from everything. The feeds still work fine though.

It only works for the free newsletters you subscribe to. If you pay for access to posts then they don’t appear on the feed, so you’ll still have to receive those by email or by visiting their website.


For the past 3 months, Germany has been trialling a scheme where for €9 a month people can travel on any regional trains, subways, trams and buses nationwide. Compared to the UK cost of public transport that’s basically free!

It sounds like it wasn’t the best planned scheme, so there’s a lot any future such schemes should consider to improve implementation.

But nonetheless in addition to the obvious benefits to travellers, it’s claimed to have saved 1.8 million tons of CO2 emissions by reducing car use.

Everyone’s a winner. More of this please!

For what it’s worth, the last train ticket I bought here in the UK, which was booked weeks in advance and required me to take specific trains, cost around £100 for a single return trip.


Started watching season 3 of Locke and Key 📺.


Forbes reports that more than half of all Bitcoin trades are likely fake - wash trading, and that kind of thing. Perhaps not a huge surprise in a sector riddled with fraud.

But given the amount of energy expended carrying out each Bitcoin transaction - each equivalent to 1.8 million more conventional VISA transactions according to Digiconomist - it feels especially galling in a world currently facing both climate and energy crises.


Seeking the world's best ice-cream - a trip to Pizzo

Whilst on vacation in Calabria, we didn’t want to miss the opportunity to take a trip to the town of Pizzo. It’s a lovely seaside town, with a 15th century castle overlooking the ocean.

A ghostly looking wire sculpture also sits there, permanently enjoying the view.

Slightly away from the rolling waves, the old town seems to be almost the stereotype of European cafe culture, replete with narrow streets and a town square.

But what most sets Pizzo apart from other delightful towns, and probably the reason it particularly attracts us tourists, is its famous Tartufo de Pizzo. Described in various places, including by our tour guide, as “the greatest ice cream in the world” it is pretty special, and the town has upwards of 20 gelaterias serving it.

It’s essentially a ball of icecream, traditionally chocolate and hazelnut, although there were plenty of other variations on hand, dusted in chocolate powder. This surrounds a delicious melted chocolate centre. Each creator apparently has their own special and top secret recipe for how to make that delectable middle, and they’re made in a way that’s quite impossible to reproduce the splendour of in for instance a mass supermarket bought product.

The origin story is that a famous ice-cream seller - I’ve seen different names given to him in different places so will treat him as anonymous here - needed to make a bunch of desserts for an important event full of VIPs. But, oh no, he ran out of moulds to shape them. Desperate not to let them down he just used his hands to create a rough sphere of ice-cream around some melted chocolate, and dusted them in sugar and chocolate. And thus the phenomena was born.


View Larger Map

A trip to Tropea

Another place we visited whilst in Calabria was Tropea. Legendarily founded by Hercules, it’s a seaside location which has previously won a “most beautiful village in Italy” award.

It’s full of quaint narrow streets, with many shops selling either fashion items or the famed local red Tropea onion.

We picked up a jar of “onion marmalade” which was far nicer than it sounds. The area is also famed for ‘nduja spicy salami.

There’s a cathedral that’s been there since the 12th century.

It’s dedicated to the Madonna of Romania, who supposedly protects the town. Presumably as evidence for that claim, there are a couple of World War II bombs that hit the town but for some reason never exploded displayed right inside the cathedral.

Another point of interest is the 4th century Sanctuary of Santa Maria dell’Isola Benedictine monastery. It’s been hit by earthquakes a couple of times since then so has had some rather more modern rebuilds, but nonetheless remains extremely picturesque.

The town is right on the seaside as the above picture suggests. Once again, the sea in this region had some truly incredible colours.


View Larger Map

A brief trip to Capo Vaticano

We made a quick visit to Capo Vaticano. It’s a beautiful spot on the Italian coast.

The colour of the sea in this region was pretty magical.

The tour guide made it clear that despite its name it was nothing to do with the Vatican. Rather, the area around it seems to be most famous for growing “Rosse di Tropea” - the red onions of Tropea.

To quote Italy Magazine:

The onion’s extraordinary sweetness, its delicate scent, its lightness and enjoyable taste, which derive from the morphological peculiarities of the soil and microclimate where it is grown, make it a much sought after ingredient by gourmets and chefs.

And they’re not wrong! They are surprisingly delicious, just eaten raw. Not something I’d usually expect of an onion. Recommended.

In Britain we’d need to import the finished onion though. Apparently just growing some locally from seed won’t do the job at all; it’s all about the conditions of the local land.

But, whilst there were many nearby stalls selling the onion, the most obvious plant life at the place we stopped was what looked to be prickly pear cactuses.

I didn’t think to sample the fruit, although it sounds like they’re perfectly palatable if you’re careful about removing all the spines.


View Larger Map

Finished reading: Sherlock Holmes and the Mayfair Murders by David Britland 📚

As a big fan of the original Sherlock Holmes stories, I enjoy trying out the modern takes out now and then.

This one was pretty good, with a style and some tropes that reminded me of the originals in a good way. I didn’t love the ending, but thoroughly enjoyed most of the experience.


Finished reading: How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism by Cory Doctorow 📚

In which the author argues that the multitude of problems and dangers associated with the ‘big tech’ surveillance companies are not so much to do with their ability to weaponise all our personal data they suck up against us. Mainly because they’re actually a lot worse at leveraging it to manipulate us than they think they are.

Rather, their detrimental impact relates more to abusive behaviours they are free to perpetuate by virtue of effectively being rich and powerful monopolies.