Will Butter Make You Smarter? Introducing Butter Mind…and Coconut Mind

stick of butter.jpgUpdate: 10/19/10 – Study is now open to users at http://genomera.com/studies/butter-mind

Will eating one of these fats improve your math performance?  Based on Seth Roberts’ butter and math
study, recently presented at a Bay Area Quantified
Self Show & Tell
, during which Seth ate half a stick of butter each day and performed better in math, we expect the answer to be yes.

Seth was able to reduce his time by 30 milliseconds.  Will others who try a similar experiment experience the same change? 


In the Butter Mind study, to be run from October 23 – November 12, I will test the hypothesis that butter improves math performance. (note: there has been a slight shift in the dates.)

This study is meant to
mimic Seth Robert’s study, with the addition of a coconut oil group. 
Many thanks to Seth for his advice and help getting this started!

Why the addition coconut oil?  I have a pet theory that the cognitive enhancement Seth received may be from the high concentration of Medium Chain Triglycerides in butter, also present in coconut oil, which has been linked to positive effects on those with Alzheimer’s Syndrome.  Seth has not tried coconut oil, so cannot report on its effects on his math scores.

Obviously, no study is perfect – and this one is no exception!  It’s a test I was interested in trying myself after seeing Seth’s presentation — but I realized it would be far more fun and interesting to include others!  This will be fun for me, and I hope for you, too. At the very least, will get data from a group over a 21-day period, but we may even get a few curious surprises. 

I am currently looking for Butter Mind participants, who will perform a math test daily for 21 days and be in one of the following groups: butter eaters, coconut oil eaters, and controls, who will eat no additional fat but will perform the same math test as the fat-eaters.

To qualify for the study, you must be willing to eat 4TBS of butter or coconut oil (sticking to the same one) – or nothing extra – for 7 days and do a 32 problem simple math test for 21 days.  You must have access to the internet to submit your scores.

Study details:


-       Participants
will be randomly selected to be in the Butter, Coconut Oil, or Control group

-    Participants will be responsible for purchasing butter or coconut oil, if in either of those groups

-       The study
will take place for 21 days: from Oct 23 – Nov 12

-       The
study will be divided into 3 sets of 7 days

o   Part I. Oct 23 – 29: Perform simple
math quiz daily  + No additional

o   Part II. Oct 30 – Nov 5: “Fat.” Perform simple
math quiz daily  + Butter OR
Coconut Oil. For Controls, just the quiz.

o   Part III. Nov 6 – 12: Perform simple
math quiz daily  + No additional

-       Non-control participants
will ingest 4 Tablespoons of either
Butter or Coconut Oil during the “Fat” portion of the study

-       Participants
will be asked to share lifestyle information before the study and asked to join an online group to track their data.  Extra sharing (thoughts, epiphanies) is encouraged but optional.

Additional details:


-       Results
will statistically analyzed, hacked and visualized (and new studies brainstormed) during Science
Hack Day
, November 13-14, Institute
for the Future.
www.sciencehackday.com.  You can join for the Science Hack Day portion only by registering here.

-       New
results will be posted to the QS blog throughout the study

-    Interested participants will receive a form requesting data on lifestyle factors several days before the study begins.  I will update this post with a link to the form when it is ready.


For more information
or to join, send an email with “Butter Mind” in the subject line to:


cat eating butter.jpg

Eri Gentry: eri@biocurious.org

Twitter: @erigentry

Eri is co-founder of BioCurious, Citizen Science guest author at the Make mag blog, and is happiest when she gets to be a guinea pig.  Eri hasn’t eaten butter in 8 years but will try it (or anything) for a better mind.

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15 Responses to Will Butter Make You Smarter? Introducing Butter Mind…and Coconut Mind

  1. Namnezia says:

    Wouldn’t you want an extra control group where participants do the three blocks of trials but have no additional fat intake?

  2. Lindsay says:

    You need additional controls to make the results of this experiment meaningful.

  3. Jeff says:

    Would be nice to see
    a) a grass-fed butter group broken out (apparently whole foods has something called kerry gold)
    b) groups who also supplement with omega 3s at the same time
    c) people making substantial change to dietary fat, over several months.

  4. Craig says:

    This is a terrible study design.
    There is no control group (no, phases I and III do not count) and, to be honest, it’s not clear what the hypothesis is. If it’s that butter is different from coconut oil, this design is OK, but a randomized crossover design would be better.
    But from what I can see, the hypothesis is that butter has any effect, which needs to be assessed with a study comparing butter to some sort of control, preferably a placebo control.
    Additional questions: what is your predicted effect size? Given that, how many people do you need to get the study to power? How does your IRB feel about your study (this is human research, and you -do not- meet the exemptions)? I know that this is not federally funded research but many state obligations exist which are usually satisfied by the IRB process.

  5. Eric says:

    I agree. More scientific rigor would be nice.

  6. Somebody says:

    Allowing people to see others’ results while the study is going on is quite likely to invalidate your results, since people will tend to subconsciously (or consciously!) skew their answers based on what they see, and whether the other group (or people in their own group) are doing better or worse than themselves. To get accurate results, you need to keep your tests subjects in the dark about how others are doing until the test is complete.

  7. Dan says:

    Yes, the above commenters are right. You need, at the very least, a group who does all the tests without any additional fats.
    You might want to get all your users to sign up, and do the first week, then assign them randomly (or so that group performance and deviations are the same, whichever works better) to butter, coconut and nofat groups. Except you might want to make the nofat group bigger than the other two, because people will probably drop out of an online study if they’re not in the ‘interesting’ group.

  8. Eri says:

    Great! Thanks to all for the comments!
    You can see that I’ve incorporated some of your thoughts into the edited post above (i.e. I have created a formal control group – some have already signed up requesting to be control and made my still slightly vague hypothesis more clear to readers).
    This will be the first group study I’ve run. I’m sure I’ll get better at this with experience. Have patience as I learn to work out the kinks.
    Please keep the helpful comments coming, but please note I can’t take them all into account for this study.
    BTW, Dan, I like your idea of waiting a week to select participants into groups. Thanks.

  9. Phil says:

    Even with the updates I’m not sure this study can demonsrate anything. While the addition of the control group improves it somewhat it would be much better if the groups were blinded.
    This is a difficult problem to get around, but there are ways. For example you could mix up batches of food stuffs, perhaps mixed with margerine, and then heavily flavoured to avoid a subject guessing which group they are in.
    Another way to do it (more for future reference) is to have a control group who is doing the same experiment but think they are testing a fish oil pill (or something similar), making it far easier to slip them a placebo instead.
    Your randomisation needs to be clearer. Are you going to try to represent the whole population, or a subset? For example if you have 200 male and 100 female are you going to put them all into a hat and randomly select from that or will you pick 50 of each?
    Also while talks of brainstorming and hacking the data sounds good it is not that good practice. Work out what you are going to do to the data before you conduct the experiment, and what result you think will support your hypothesis. Otherwise you can hack away until you find a result that satisfies you and then you stop.
    And to reiterate what someone else said, this is an experiment on people, there may or may not be laws you need to follow.

  10. Gary Wolf says:

    I am not very convinced by the arguments against Eri’s study design.
    Craig says: There is no control group (no, phases I and III do not count) and, to be honest, it’s not clear what the hypothesis is.
    I would like more information about why this A/B/A design is terrible. It seems that it is pretty similar to the natural experiments we do in our daily lives, with the exception that in this case there is careful data collected.
    This experiment is a “next step” in extending an investigation that began with Seth Roberts experiment on himself. If the goal is to learn more, this would be good progress.
    Moreover, the experiment is very cheap and fast. If this were the experimental design of a professional academic scientist who was applying for a large research grant, the amount of knowledge to be gained might seem inadequate for the time and money spent. (Whether it really as inadequate is another question – that depends on your evaluation of the worth of most big, expensive experiments.) But cheap and fast experiments are valuable because they can advance knowledge cheaply and quickly. We want more of them, not less of them. Suggesting a better study design is helpful, but I would urge Eri NOT to do anything that would scale up the complexity of her experiment so much that her chance of executing it successfully is hurt.
    This experiment involves common foods over a short period of time. Therefore, I do see any reason worry about them being ethically or legally suspect.
    I think the key thing to remember is captured by Phil’s question: “Are you going to try to represent the whole population, or a subset?”
    While there is probably good reason to believe, as Seth argues, that the basic physiology here is common to all humans, that’s not really what is being tested. Seth got a result that was very interesting. Eri is seeing whether this result can be replicated with more people, using some basic experimental protocols. That’s an excellent way to learn.

  11. Dave says:

    Hi everyone,
    I just blogged on the coconut/butter mind at http://www.betterbabyblog.com/ and included some tips about using MCT oil instead of coconut oil. Coconut contains MCT, but a bunch of other oils too. By using MCT, you maximize the amount of oil (capric and caprilyc triglycerides) that your brain mitochondria use.
    Research from Dr. Mary Newport was reviewed at the nonprofit I run in Palo Alto (www.smartlifeforum.org); it explained how MCT oil from coconuts reversed alzheimers.
    I’ve been on MCT oil, approx 3-8 TBS/day, along with grass-fed butter (Kerry Gold) for several years, and just started carrying the best MCT formulation I know of on http://www.betterbabybook.com. Here’s a 10% discount for fellow QS people using this code: BB2010SPECIAL
    “The goal of life is not to possess power, but to radiate it.” – Henry Miller

  12. Lindsay says:

    Gary -
    “I would like more information about why this A/B/A design is terrible.”
    I don’t necessarily think this is terrible. This provides at least some way for Eri to pull out the effects of practice from any effects caused by the fats. However, I think randomizing it would probably be a better idea.
    “This experiment involves common foods over a short period of time. Therefore, I do see any reason worry about them being ethically or legally suspect.”
    The reason these laws exist is so that an impartial board of scientists determines how ethical an experimental design is, not the experimenter themselves. Even though there would be no accountability since Eri is not affiliated with a university or publishing her results, this is a very, very important part of science and one worth exploring for the readers of this site.
    “But cheap and fast experiments are valuable because they can advance knowledge cheaply and quickly.” and
    “Eri is seeing whether this result can be replicated with more people, using some basic experimental protocols. That’s an excellent way to learn.”
    It’s also an excellent way to come to conclusions that aren’t consistent with reality. It’s also an excellent way to trick other people into thinking your results are meaningful as well, which is very bad. There are a lot of people that don’t think critically about scientific results and will take what you say as some sort of demonstrated truth, or try to make money off of people who don’t think critically (as Dave so handily demonstrates in the comment above). BUT you could take this opportunity to educate your readers on what does make a great study!
    If you do this, here is my advice as a scientist: 1) add as many controls as is feasible; 2) have a professional do your statistics, 3) explore your results with guarded language, and 4) also explore ALL of the faults with the design and sources of error and write about how each of them could have affected your results.
    I would very much like to see this kind of thing taken seriously by ‘professional’ scientists as it is a neat way of evaluating hypotheses. It is also a fantastic way to get people engaged and interested in science and critical thinking. Good luck!

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