Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Primal Blueprint: An Epistemocratic Map for Health Decision Making

Maps matter.

Especially in cognitive psychology (thanks to Dave Lull).

In practice, cognitive maps for decision making don't tell you where to go or how to navigate in every specific case or at every point in time; instead, they provide sign posts, indicators of contours and textures, notes about landscapes, and other framework-related notions such as social-scaffolding nodes, platforms, outlines, and forewarnings. Maps provide information for people to make choices in their particular situations: maps serve as choice architecture.

But that does not mean that all maps are created equal. It also does not mean that all maps are useful. Personally, when given the choice, I prefer to move about the world without a map rather than to rely on the wrong map: I don't want a false-sense-of-security or a false-confidence in the wrong map to lead me off the edge of a cliff like a lemming. Rather, I want a map that assists me in negative Black Swan avoidance while positioning me with exposure to the envelope of serendipity so that I can capture positive Black Swan hits along the way.

When I reflect about health(care), fitness, nutrition, medicine, and beyond, especially when I compose essays, I tend to focus on big-picture concepts and try to avoid too many details. Why? Simple: For a long time, unfortunately, I studied the details of Conventional Wisdom maps extensively, in much depth, and then I made decisions in accordance with these 'facts'. The net result: chronic inflammation and nagging illness. Why? Because I had the wrong maps. Using Conventional Wisdom maps diligently as decision-making tools did not help me navigate grocery stores, restaurants, gyms, medical offices, hospitals, etc. in healthy ways. Frankly, I got lost--really lost--using these deceptive, misleading maps to inform my choices. That platonic Food Pyramid triangle served as the (broken) compass on many of these maps, and chronic cardio filled in the borders: a catabolic recipe for disaster.

What did I learn? I realized, through successive hard knocks, that I had falsified these Conventional Wisdom maps. I learned that no matter how many details I know about a particular map, those details will simply lead me astray if they aren't embedded in the right map in the first place.

Better maps do exist.

A few years ago, I--luckily, thankfully, and serendipitously--stumbled upon some better maps (the stars aligned, so to speak): The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb, Evolutionary Fitness by Art DeVany, and The Primal Blueprint by Mark Sisson (Nassim tipped me to Art; Art tipped me to Mark; the rest is history). What did I do with these epistemocratic maps that countered Conventional Wisdom in everything from physiology to finance? I learned that, as Nassim likes to say, "The best way to cut a diamond is with a diamond." We need new narratives to displace falsified narratives; we need new stories to live by that help us survive and then thrive in modern times. I learned that we need new maps. In response, I constructed my own m=1 my-thologies (captured under the Ancestral Fitness epistemocracy mythology umbrella) that compelled me to conduct n=1 self-experiments: I operationalized my thinkering model for biotechnology by running Patient of One clinical trials on myself in my local ecology. While conducting these tests, I searched rigorously, openly, and honestly for 'chinks in the armor'--I tried to falsify the hypotheses and conjectures that my personal interpretations of these new maps generated. So far, I have falsified, in the case of my personal physiology, some of these hypotheses/conjectures: I don't eat fruit anymore, for instance, suspecting that I struggle, like many folks of European descent, with fructose malabsorption; I also don't consume much wine, only rarely for an ongoing experiment with hormesis, for the same reason, given that, as Dr. Lustig at UCSF concludes, alcohol and fructose are metabolized in parallel fashions. Yet, despite setting out to falsify--disprove--the ideas suggested by Evolutionary Fitness and The Primal Blueprint, I have yet to experience many data points that would suggest I should not continue to inform my lifestyle decisions with the support of these practical, flexible, and insightful maps. As a result, for the foreseeable future, these maps will remain critical parts of my 'tried-and-true' health and fitness portfolio, providing the Barbell base upon which I will continue to tinker, thinker, and self-experiment in lifestyle design.

Thus, in the Thanksgiving spirit, I want to say, as I did at BIL:PIL when I spoke about Nutritional Bricolage, that I am thankful to Mark Sisson for turning his personal m=1/n=1 voyage into a map that empowers others to self-experiment safely and effectively. We must remember that all maps are mythologies--the Hume/Popper/Black Swan et al. problem of induction suggests this much--and there is no distinction between fact and fiction in reality: everything is fiction--we've just falsified some 'fictional' statements while others remain yet-to-be-falsified. In this context, the vibrant Grok archetype (contrasted with the unhealthy Korg anti-archetype) that Mark develops in The Primal Blueprint is tremendously valuable because this fictional character and the associated question of "What would Grok do?" help us engage in bricolage in our own lives and then falsify/disconfirm components of our regular health habits that do not support the optimal epigenetic expression of our physiologies and biochemical individualities. It's ancestral mimicry, where useful and fruitful, and it's how humans have learned and developed for many, many years. Like I have said before, "We'd be wise to learn from our ancestors," and this concept permeates Mark's wonderful work in so many ways. That should, at least, be our default, and the burden of proof should be on more recent developments to prove their value in our lives.

Defaults matter.

I default to learning by grace (as much as possible).

Since I find much value in the following proverbial statement that I learned from my mom, "We can learn by grace or by hard knocks," it is no surprise that the following quote is one of my favorite snippets in Mark's book: "The wise man sees in the misfortune of others what he should avoid"--Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor (121-180). In line with this thread, The Primal Blueprint supplies ample negative advice, what we shouldn't do, such as "Avoid Poisonous Things" and "Avoid Stupid Mistakes" (which sounds like negative Black Swan avoidance to me!).

My hard knocks with health (migraines and sinus infections) and fitness (achy joints and catabolism) resembled Mark's in so many ways that I needed little justification to experiment on myself based upon his lessons-learned over the years: we both beat ourselves up with chronic, excessive endurance training, fueled on grains, only to realize that there had to be a better, healthier, more enjoyable way. Today, I am so very thankful that I took the Primal Challenge spirit and put it to practice a few years back--my life has transformed in so many positive ways as a result.

I'll stop here, hoping that I have enticed you enough to read The Primal Blueprint as a research-rich resource full of 'grace nudges'--a bottom-up map (blueprint), born out of real-world experience, that will help you make health decisions amidst the minefields that are our contemporary ecologies.

I also hope The Primal Blueprint map displaces Conventional Wisdom maps expediently.

Because maps matter.

Time to build your own m=1/n=1 map from the ground up.

Time to bricolage.

Grok on!

To good health,



  1. The Primal Blueprint is truly an awesome map. I bought a copy for my mom for her birthday and by implementing it she's seen major health improvements.

    Lierre Keith's "The Vegetarian Myth" provides an excellent m=1 historical account of two maps colliding: veganism vs primal. Guess which map wins.

  2. Thanks, Aaron.

    I also ordered up more copies of The Primal Blueprint to give out as Holiday Gifts to select friends and families in hopes of providing them with a better map for personalized bricolage.

    I plan to read Keith's book during my hibernation time this Winter. Looking forward to it ...



  3. Aaron,

    Thank you so much for your wonderful post on the Primal Blueprint.

    I'm always amazed at the maps that people choose to read and follow when they see the results of others who have chosen that path.

    I feel like many are afraid to follow right map, because they may actually end up where they want to be. Way too many people are afraid of success; it's just too scary.

    Train with purpose,

    Sandy Sommer RKC

  4. Thanks, Sandy, for chiming in.

    I have discussed this with Gio Carmazzi at length: the psychology of success. We both agree that, at some level, people must feel as if they deserve to be successful in order to continue on the path that keeps yielding positive results. It's a balancing act of feeling good about successes--small wins--but then continuing to pursue the process that produces success purposefully. I suspect we hurt many people's self-esteem from young ages and fail to engender a sense of feeling good about succeeding in domains like personal health.

    How do you think we could attack this problem in the youth development space?



  5. Sandy, thanks, but lets' give credit where credit's due and thank Brent for his excellent post. He's just one empirical soldier spreading the word of a valuable heuristic against which to test one's life.

    I see you're a big fan of kettlebells. I discovered them this summer and have incorporated them into a regular component of my fitness regimen.