Carbohydrates and the Brain

On the way home from Boston today, I took a different route home and stumbled upon an ice cream place that I’d wanted to try for quite some time. Against my better judgment, I grabbed a “kiddie cone”, which in New England is about the size of a small cat.

Ordinarily, having an ice cream cone like that on an empty stomach would knock me into a sugar coma. After reading about the brain’s use of glucose as a fuel source, I wondered if I could think my way past the sugar coma. The theory: if I use as much of my brain as possible thinking, analyzing, processing both external and internal stimuli, I might be able to burn-up all that extra sugar. That was about 90 minutes ago. And surprisingly, it seems to have avoided the initial crash. I know this is just one datapoint, but I thought I’d share the experience.

Here’s what I did in the first 30 minutes after eating the double chocolate chip kiddie cone from Richardson’s Ice Cream in Middleton, Massachusetts:

  1. Talked my way, out loud, through the implementation of a web application, from authentication to database design to javascript. This is something I haven’t built before, so I asked myself a lot of questions, synthesized a lot of possible solutions, and recalled techniques I’d vaguely read about. I drilled down from the top level down to the pseudocode level.

  2. I listened very closely to music, trying to pick out individual instruments and deconstruct what they were doing. What was the progression? Could I visualize which note was where in the scale? Could I recognize chords? Could I appreciate the interplay of the instrument with others in the mix? When I knew the words, I also sang along loudly, trying to match pitch precisely while monitoring the roles my throat, tongue, lungs, and diaphragm were playing in the production of sound.

  3. I tried to maintain a left-left-right-left-right-right-left head bopping motion while driving manual transmission. More difficult than it sounds. It’s like patting your head and rubbing your belly at the same time.

  4. Everything I looked at, I looked at more closely than usual. I noted what caught my eye, and then deconstructed why that was. Sometimes it was the proportion of a car’s lines. Sometimes it was a bumper sticker + license plate that told me something about the driver. I tried to draw more information from every observation than usual. It occurred to me that this is what Sherlock Holmes does, constantly. It’s very draining.

  5. I added arbitary integers in my head, which is something I hate doing ordinarily.

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p>As a result, I maintained attention and wakefulness, and my brain speed seems to be running twice as fast as normal. This resulted in me also TALKING fast, but to make it challenging I tried to enunciate more than usual because I have a tendency to slur my words. I also tapped my fingers rapidly, sort of keeping time with the thinking.

A normal sugar crash should kick in, if I am reading the Internet correctly, about an hour after eating way too much processed sugar. So far I’ve avoided it, but as soon as I go home and throttle down the brain speed I think I’ll end up crashing.

On a side note, the first hour after eating that ice cream, while thinking, was unusually clear-headed. I wonder if my brain is a power-hungry gas guzzler and needs more juice than I have been consistently giving it. It was rather exhilarating to open up the throttle and go for it. I’ll have to try this again in the future.

Just read that the brain uses about 20% of our energy. No word on what the range is.