The Price We Pay for Untangling Variables

Biologically close to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, modern humans nevertheless work as a team to operate technological societies of millions upon millions of people. As the requirements of civilized life differ sharply from what it was like to hunt animals and gather plants in an ancient tribe, it was mostly up to cultural evolution to take human psychology and adapt it to civilization. While humans are biologically wired to find it intolerably boring to sit alone at a desk entering data into spreadsheets all day, the spontaneous order of society has evolved a solution. With enough coffee, sugar, and ADHD medication, it’s possible to hold down such a job. Civilization-era foods, stimulants, and psychoactive drugs help people fit into modern life.

Like writing new software for old hardware, the invisible hand operates the switchboard of dietary tradition, medical intervention, and even drug culture to tune people’s mental settings so they’re more in line with how society works. Selective breeding of plants and animals, the government-controlled market processes that produce and distribute pharmaceuticals, and all of the other evolutionary forces that determine what people eat, what people drink, and what drugs people use, all come together to adapt people to civilized life.

Now, while it’s easy to see that caffeine, alcohol, and anti-depressants have mental effects, it’s not so easy to see that, say, grains change your neurological settings as well. People go on and off caffeine, plenty of people don’t drink at all, and only sometimes does a person get prescribed anti-depressants. However, most people eat grains nearly every day of their life.

If I claim that people choose what to eat and drink based on how it will affect their attention span, openness, and other neurological parameters, you may protest that you’ve never done such a thing. Surely people just eat what tastes good, what’s satisfying, and what’s affordable. But what if I told you that when using multiple adjectives to describe a noun, English speakers put adjectives expressing opinions before adjectives expressing facts? You might say you’ve never done such a thing, but then again I never meant to say it’s a conscious process. We say “lovely old lady”, not “old lovely lady”. We say “beautiful green house”, not “green beautiful house”. Run through a hundred examples, and you’ll see the unmistakeable pattern. We don’t do this consciously, but we do it nonetheless. This is simply the nature of cultural evolution. People act out patterns they don’t even know exist.

To be clear, however, I should say that even the most subconscious of decisions are nevertheless made according to something that presents within the person’s conscious awareness. Even if people aren’t consciously aware that they’re choosing what to eat based on the mental effects, there’s still an optimization process they’re putting into action.

So how does it actually work? For one, society bestows onto the individual a set of pre-packaged activity bundles that are seen as normal. It’s normal to drink beer at bars, but not at work. It’s common to drink coffee during business meetings, but not whisky. And birthday parties often feature brightly colored fluffy cake, but it would be strange to pass out such desserts at a debate.

Far from being random, there’s a real significance to what’s normal to eat or drink in what context. While the individual needn’t think about it so consciously, it’s absolutely the case that brightly colored fluffy cake makes things more fun at the expense of the steadiness of emotion, length of attention span, and depth of thought that’s needed to perform in a debate. Cultural evolution has done its own calculations, and has given the individual a palate of options. As long as you stick to what’s normal, what you eat and drink will pair properly with what you want to do with your mind at any given time.

The bottom line is that most people don’t have conscious knowledge of the mental effects of food because they haven’t developed associations of the type [food A] -> [mental effect B]; instead, they have associations like [activity X] -> [way of feeling Y]. 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 refined-flour, refined-sugar cake is usually served). They may not think about what caffeine does in particular, but they do know how productive they are when they go to a cafe with a textbook (as they would order coffee and also have other favorable factors in place, such as a co-working atmosphere). They think not about the mental effects of food in particular, but rather about how they feel and what they get done in the various socially constructed contexts.

Besides that, there’s also personal identity and how it interfaces with the aesthetics of cuisine. For example, eating brightly colored desserts on a regular basis might be seen as cute if you’re a cute girl, but a masculine man would 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 avoid fluffy cakes, as the physiological and neurological effects work at cross purposes with masculinity. A masculine individual would lean toward aesthetically masculine foods and drinks, such as steak, whisky, and black coffee. Developing a coherent identity that you signal to others is in part of a matter of dietary practice. People reflexively laugh when they see a muscular man consuming something that’s generally associated with young children, cute girls, or any other incompatible social role. It’s harder to analyze what foods cause what mental effects than to fall in line when people laugh at you for doing something weird.

In order to see how food affects your mental settings, you have to untangle the variables by doing strange things. You need to break apart the societally evolved activity bundles, and you need to eat foods which conflict with your identity. You must take all the different foods, activities, and identities, and then randomly mix and match them while observing the effects.

For instance, I tried to allocate an extremely long attention span to deep academic reading while eating cake. I tried doing technical thinking while drinking beer. And I saw what it was like to pass on eating altogether in social situations where it’s considered abnormal to not partake in the food. Furthermore, I attempted to remain in an intensely masculine headspace while eating ice cream every night. I attempted to maintain masculine composure with women while eating foods that people associate with small children. And I gave a serious shot to fueling a dark intellectual orientation with a steady supply of colorful cookies.

Essentially, I tried to turn everything upside down. Rather than doing what’s prescribed by society, I isolated the variables, threw them into all sorts of unusual combinations, and then paid attention to the results. In the end, I paid the price for untangling variables. My routines broke. Everything went haywire. My life fell apart.

While most people eat cookies only in situations where they’re trying to have low-pressure fun, I attempted to to fuel a masculine disposition with plenty of gooey cookies, and I found that there was only so much I could do to fight the effects. I found that cookies do indeed have psychological effects which are incompatible with masculinity, and that there’s a reason so many cultures have the trend where masculine men generally pass on dessert.

Now, as ridiculous it might sound there was indeed an important reason I did this. While most people stick to the socially prescribed action bundles, I didn’t want to do this. I wanted to forge my own path. For that I needed to untangle all the variables, and figure out not only what each substance does, but also what each other variable does.

For example, why are bars usually dimly lit, while 24-hour fast food restaurants are often brightly lit? Why do particular 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 a formal setting, and a different posture when hanging out with their friends? If I can untangle all of the various factors, then I can break all of the socially constructed action bundles into a list of isolated ingredients that I can then mix and match to my own purposes. If I can figure out the psychological and sociological significance of each type of food, each sort of exercise, each way of dressing, each kind of posture, and so on, then I can, in effect, create my own action bundles from scratch. While the bar scene, nightclubs, business meetings, cafes, and all other social contexts embody social patterns of food, drink, and a million other ingredients, it’s possible to distill these larger patterns into smaller pieces. Armed with the isolated components, you can then create your own culture. You can create your own traditions.