Thursday, August 13, 2009

Ancestral Fitness: Choice Architecture for Epistemocrats

At some point, we just have to self-experiment (n=1).

It is a noble tradition in medicine, uncovers new ideas for further research, and drives discovery of practical solutions to everyday problems ('cheap options').

Self-experimentation is the modus operandi that rises to the surface as the most effective solution-searching engine in the face of opacity. No one or group or anything knows everything, but we do know things. When it comes to health, for instance, Ancestral Fitness captures lessons-learned by 'hard knocks' from practitioners' trial-and-error tinkering experiences. Like Ben Hogan finding his golf swing 'in the dirt', members of the Ancestral Fitness community have reached their tentative conclusions through real-world feedback. Then, they have embedded these gems from 'ah-hah' moments within a larger ancestral mythology. For instance, I used to do chronic cardio at a very high athletic level fueled on 'complex carbohydrates' (I could 'run forever'), only to learn that this aerobic pathway combination did not help me achieve health or feel good -- I got sick too often, was sore too often, and did not look as I hoped too often. That was one of my many personal hard knocks; a series of hard knocks that were manifestations of following the Food Pyramid, the mainstream 'exercise' culture, and other fallacious recommendations. From that suffering, I learned quite a bit about what does not work, so I inquired intently about what really works. Through research, I stumbled upon other folks, like Mark Sisson, who experienced similar challenges on the traditional paradigm. From there, I chose grace, and I started self-experimenting with Ancestral Fitness concepts (the gamut of all things Paleo, Primal, etc.) as an epistemocrat in action.

And, today, as the humble process continues, I continually learn more and more about what works and what does not work for me, the 'patient of one'. It's a bottom-up, empowering process, not top-down drudgery. For example, I recently (starting July 12th when I read Dr. Davis' 'Goodbye Fructose' post, thanks to Dave Lull) engaged in a fruit-free, fructose-free experiment in an effort to reduce my sugar intake even further (it was very low already) for six months, just to see what happens. The downside risk seems minimal to me, but the upside potential, I suspect, could be quite beneficial -- so I am simply giving it a shot to learn more about the 'suicide by sugar' perspective. Knowing that Clostridium Difficile bacteria thrive on sugar is one factor that also motivated my decision, but, ultimately, these data points simply serve as start-up (funding) energy to overcome inertia and kick start my self-experiment. In my Ancestral Fitness mythology, I envision ancestral fruits as having much higher acid contents and much lower sugar contents than they do today, thanks (unfortunately) to intensive agriculture.

Sure, there's a hint of paternal-libertarianism in Ancestral Fitness -- it's 'choice architecture' for epistemocrats. But, it's minimal; instead, it's a bare-bones foundational platform and skeleton upon and within which you can tinker to personalize your diet, movement, play, and lifestyle patterns according to aesthetic preferences and individual differences. Clearly, many of our contemporary experiments have failed miserably when it comes to health, so providing folks with some social scaffolding points -- intermittent fasting, no bad carbs, fat is good, protein is a must, etc. -- seems wise because we'd be wise to learn from our ancestors. For example, the nutrition labels on the packaging of foods and beverages skew the choice architecture of our diet choices: the RDA percentages bias our thinking toward the low-fat, high-carbohydrate model and scare us away from ancestral eating and drinking practices. This is the problem with top-down social engineering, which is what food labels are -- realize, again, that our health states have only degraded further since we learned just how many calories, fats, etc. are in the foods that we eat. Moving beyond the reality that the 'calorie-in, calorie-out' thermodynamic theory is wrong, I think Ancestral Fitness has a more spiritual respect for individuals in the context of their evolutionary ancestries. Context matters, and our current mainstream mythological context is disconnected with our ancestral roots. We must reconnect, merging the benefits of technology and information age 'creature features' with our evolutionarily tried and tested roots.

In this mythology, the universal character is "Your Ancestor" prior to agriculture (Jared Diamond refers to agriculture as the worst development in human history, spurring overpopulation, poor health, inequality, resource constraints, ecological destruction, etc.). Your mythology is not about my ancestor; it's about your ancestor (we account for genetics that way). The choice architecture of Ancestral Fitness provides you with 'jumping-off points' for leveraging serendipity. Take eggs out of your diet for a week; who knows, you may feel better (or worse). Add shots of olive oil and balsamic vinegar into your routine for a month; who knows, your energy levels or mood experiences may change for the better (or not at all). The possibilities are vast. The downside risk is relatively clipped; the tests are practical and generally inexpensive -- you really don't have much to lose -- but the chance for improvement, things turning out better than expected, and positive unintended consequences abound when you maximize entropy given fixed-path constraints (such as income, time, amount of food eaten per week, etc.) by experimenting in non-linear ways (of the Levy flight variety; see image above). If visualized (as in the image above), your inquiries into the human condition in the information age, your self-experiments, your thinking, your ____ can look like Levy flights (which some opine is messy and disorganized) and that is just fine; in fact, it is quite fine -- it's self-organized in a fractal manner, which is sophisticated math at a higher order of cognition. Think of the nodes (high density areas) in a Levy flight pattern as the 'social scaffolding' points of the Ancestral Fitness framework that serve as 'grace nudges' to help you unleash your physiological potential. 'Grace nudges' respect people's agency, letting folks 'figure it out for themselves' while still moving in the generally right direction.

Yet, self-experimenting and tinkering are not without detractions. Sometimes, the question of "What more do you want?" is appropriate and necessary. Maintaining health is important as well. The adage, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," slides in here. And, here is where I default back to the Barbell Strategy. When you reach a happy state, a healthy state, and things are going well, don't rock the boat in unneeded ways, turn to the Barbell instead: continue expending 80 to 90% of your energy, resources, efforts, strategies, etc. on and toward the 'tried and true' -- the bread and butter that works -- and then diversify the remaining sliver of your personal portfolio into various 'cheap options' through tinkering, self-experimenting, and trial-and-error solution searching. This way, your retain your platform, knowing it won't fall out from underneath you as easily, yet you still, as Richard Feynman said, "keep the door to the unknown ajar." That's the best we can do: be human and tinker.

Sure, the choice architecture is there, but Ancestral Fitness is about 'the patient of one' figuring out what works individually. If you have not started already, Mark Sisson's awesome Primal Health Challenge is one way to test the waters and start self-experimenting today. For those epistemocrats already spanning connections amidst the Ancestral Fitness nodes and scaffolding, to good health and continual open-source sharing with the rest of the community to refine and evolve the decision-making ecology even further.



  1. Hey Brent,
    Good post. I appreciate your understanding of tinkering, as well as the high degree of cross-categorical synthesis you encourage (and live). An epistemocrat can't afford to pigeonhole themselves! I agree regarding ("Ancestral") fitness as well - grasping the conceps and knowing the long-view resonance of it makes the persuit of the healthy (and refreshingly flexible!) lifestyle. I came across DeVany through Taleb. Speaking of NNT, I nabbed an excerpt of one of Taleb's articles that seemed to sum up his thoughts on tinkering/positive Black Swans well:

    stay well and playful,

  2. Hey, fantastic post, Brett. As a fellow epistemocrat (and in the spirit of this post), I have been undertaking an ongoing n=1 experiment with raw dairy. Dairy intake, of course, puts me at odds with the larger Paleo community. My experiment has thus far, however, proven positive. I’ve found a great, satisfying and tasty alternative food source that works well for me. Of course, this won’t be the case for everyone – especially (and obviously) the lactose-intolerant – but if you don’t give it a proper trial, how will you know? The Buddha advised his followers not to accept his teachings blindly, but to test them out; take what is useful, discard what is not. Good advice, I say, from the original epistemocrate.

  3. Thanks, Brett and Keith.

    Much appreciated.

    We'd be wise to listen to the Buddha. The world is our live anthropology lab; our bodies are our chemistry flasks, and living is testing.

    Here is a good discussion of raw milk (real milk with intact proteins and live healthy bacterial cultures) on the Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation Web site for those who are considering this self-experiment:

    I love Classic FAGE Total Yogurt for my high protein, high fat, high good bacteria, low carb dairy intake. Fermentation is great; pasteurization is not. I also love Raw Cheese, especially with some Sockeye Salmon and avocado. Good bacteria is so critical to health promotion and prevention right now and raw dairy is effective on this front. Raw is live foods = good.

    The "n = 1" revolution through self-experimentation needs to be elevated in both medical practice and research. Our health system has moved too far in the direction of global populations thinking and lost touch with local individuals realities. Despite our culture in America, which is generally accepting of failure, we still lack flair for self-experimentation, despite the reality that every statin, blood thinner, etc. is a live experiment in action as well (just a more expensive and potentially dangerous one).

    "n=1" is quite refreshing, empowering, and uplifting: as Brett and Keith suggest, don't pigeonhole yourself with one 'Paleo' view that says no dairy or dislikes saturated fat; instead, give raw dairy or greek yogurt and high-fat (I like all three) a try and see how it goes.

    The results may surprise you ...

  4. Whoops, I meant "Brent". But Brett, I like your comment as well!

  5. Brent,

    This is a great post. In the age where only the "double blinded placebo controlled trial" gets any respect, we must remember that the great leaps in medicine occurred with an n=1.

    Doug McGuff

  6. Thanks, Dr. McGuff.

    In reflecting about 'how to elevate the n=1 perspective', I conceptualized the following:

    Goal: We need to overcome stigmas associated with and elevate the status of self-experimentation in medical practice and research. We also need to elevate the status of nutrition. Hence, room for synergy and 'killing two-birds with one stone' exist. Self-experimenting with nutrition is one concrete way to cultivate these processes in parallel. Experimenting with nutrition is relatively safe and is practical since patients shop for their foods and drinks already (and for other reasons), so increasing patient participation in their health experiences through physician-supported nutrition experimentation represents a vehicle that could contribute to a cultural transformation.

    Context: I imagine this in the exemplary light that you currently advance so perceptively on the exercise and fitness front.

    To good health,