Carbohydrates and the Brain

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.


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.


  1. Ayse 9 years ago

    When I was in grad school, I discovered that I could do a little better on tests when I ate (a small amount of) sugar candy right before and about 30 minutes into the exam time. My grade improvement was not quite one letter grade, but enough to make it worthwhile. It was a fluke, discovered because I had a cough and was sucking on a lot of cough drops, but I’ve done it ever since. I admit I’ve never tried it in the opposite direction, thinking hard to compensate for overeating sugars, but it does make sense.

  2. Yvonne Root 9 years ago

    What a fascinating concept. Do I understand correctly that the 5 items on your list were done consecutively? Still, it seems amazing to me that you were able to accomplish this list with such depth and clarity. Did you think of each thing on the list as you went along? Do you keep a to-do list with you of things to think about.

    And to Ayse, I have a job which begins at midnight (or there abouts) and ends by noon. Sometimes just the physical act of opening a piece of candy is enough to awaken me for a bit. Does that count? :)

  3. Author
    Dave Seah 9 years ago

    Ayse: I’ve been trying to discover the minimum effective dose of sugar. Smarties might be the right test vehicle! Hey, I wonder if they’re named for the brain food effect?

    Yvonne: Yes, more or less consecutively while I was driving, though not exactly in that order, and some things (like the music and observing) were donemore than once. I just made them up as I went along…I look at my “big list of things to do” fairly often, so it wasn’t difficult to think of things related to those tasks.

  4. Karen Tiede 9 years ago

    A normal sugar crash should kick in

    May I suggest this might not have been “normal” sugar? If the ice cream was any good at all, it had a VERY high fat content. Fat will limit the rate at which the sugar gets into your blood, and therefore into your brain. Ice cream also has a reasonable protein component, which also protects from the worst of a sugar rush.

    To really try out-thinking sugar, you’d need to test-eat something that was all carb, no fat. Sugar drinks. Most cakes (depends on how the icing is made). Most candy.

    Try the experiment with an RC Cola and a Moon Pie sometime. (do they sell that combo all the way up in MA?)

  5. Author
    Dave Seah 9 years ago

    Karen: Thank you for your insight! It was fairly decent ice cream from an ice cream stand that makes its own ice cream. Hm, maybe ice cream is the ideal sugar delivery mechanism. This will require MUCH TESTING :)

    We don’t have RC Cola – Moon Pies up here (at least not as readily as down in the South), but I can probably find some Mexican Coca-Cola (cane sugar) and something equivalent. Or I can pretend I’m a giant hummingbird and drink some sugary water.

  6. jb 9 years ago

    Fortunately for all of us sweet tooths, and perhaps all those with children, the notion of sugar “highs” and/or “crashes” from the consumption of table sugar is a myth. Unless of course you’re under the mistaken assumption it is reality. But the fix for that is a lot simpler than adding random integers.

  7. Author
    Dave Seah 9 years ago

    jb: After logging my sugar consumption yesterday with a box of sugar cookies and some regular Coca Cola, I was surprised at the results. I’ve assumed that there really WERE sugar highs and crashes, as they’re widely reported as anecdotes in popular culture, but I haven’t read any medical studies on it. All I’ve got is Google, some guessed keywords, and my own experimentation. Now I have some new keywords to try, and a troll-like comment from a friend indicating otherwise! A dangerous combination! :)

  8. Mike 9 years ago

    What a vision! Singing, bopping your head and talking about database design… I wonder if a bystander would have thought you were speaking in tongues if not completely flipped out! We could call it a sugar-psychotic episode…

    Joking aside it is an interesting experiment. I’ve heard that he brain consumes 75% of the glucose we have, and that experiencing a “bonk” (that extreme low blood sugar feeling during extended physical/athletic exertion) is a way that our brain assures its needed supply i.e., shutting off the body’s ability to keep using it up at that rate. What you were doing is somewhat the reverse of that.

    On a bit of a tangent… I do think that those mental gymnastics improve brain agility and endurance as put forth in the book “Pumping Ions”. I used to do one of the suggested exercises in the morning and found that I have — in some way — a better thought process on days that I do so. There are few that I do while driving including some that I have made up just for driving.

    Try turning words into numbers (a=1, b=2… then add up the numbers within the word).