The title is a bit over the top, as it’s about the life of a mouse, but it can still be impressive.
It’s tricky trying to translate philosophical thought into English, but let’s try. Let’s talk about free will, or rather about the fact that it is largely an illusion. We want to eat and we can choose what we eat, but… what we like depends on our genes and the current state of our body. If our body is lacking potassium, so we suddenly feel like eating a banana, we make a “free decision” to eat it. But it is not “we” as a personality who do this, it is our body, and the words we use to justify it are just that, justification. One can of course go deeper into it, what if we decide not to eat at all? Ha, we have cheated destiny, we have shown the body that we are not slaves! But… maybe something was behind our decision not to eat anything? Unfortunately, there was. Every decision is a result of “something”.
Here is a field for endless discussions, like can one be punished for a crime, if it is a result of some predestination, forced by the genetic makeup of the criminal? Or is it possible to do anything with it, because it is just a set of reflexes? I leave these considerations to the authors of philosophically oriented blogs, for now let’s write on a piece of paper “our decisions depend on the state of our body” and move on.
Another thing worth touching on is so-called learned helplessness. In a nutshell, if we subject an animal (for example, a dog, but it can be a human too) to negative stimuli in such a way that it cannot avoid them, after some time it will stop avoiding them, even if there is an escape route. In a drastic form this was seen in experiments with dogs, where they were electrocuted in a cage. Once the animal became convinced that escape would accomplish nothing, it would lapse into a stagnation and would not escape even when the cage was opened.
This phenomenon is responsible for many cases of neurosis and depression. It is easy to imagine a young man who is neither very handsome, nor particularly talkative, but has a severe addiction to the Internet. If he tries to meet a woman, he will be brutally rejected, because women are not interested in such not very talkative and not very pretty men. After some attempts our hero won’t try again, but he will plunge even deeper into the Internet, which will make his conversation skills even worse, and his circle of real friends will shrink.
Today on one forum I saw a post of a guy who at the age of 40 is trying to change his job, because how long can he be a clerk. After sending out one CV after another, he doesn’t feel like sending out another one and has switched to the “it’s all the fault of this bad system” mode. Getting additional skills is beyond his capabilities, because he has suffered too many failures to make it to the next step. The whole thread was one big excuse and insults to people who suggested that maybe he should have something more to offer the employer than “communicative English”. (in practice at A2 level).
Every person sometimes needs a reward to keep going. When planning anything in life, you need to take this into account. I would venture to say that over 90% of attempts to change one’s life fail because people want to change too much at once, thus burning themselves out without getting any “reward”. I myself am currently in the process of learning 2 new skills that will hopefully allow me to earn a little more, but I have taken this pitfall into account and divided my “course” into very, very small chunks. I’m working through one every day, but I’m doing it even if the world were to collapse.
Stupid? That you would be able to do otherwise? Where are the results of this ability, somehow I do not believe that the blog is read only by people with bodies of supermodels, with a salary over 15 thousand per hand and with a range of additional skills that will delight everyone. Because I guarantee that these things are within reach of almost every person who will devote enough time to gain them. And will not give up right after the start. I’m not talking about people with IQ within the limits of mental retardation, because as I pointed out at the beginning of the paragraph, I’m talking about the readers of this blog.
People throw themselves into things that are too difficult, then give up after only a few days because they have no “reward”. We go back to the very beginning of this post, where we were supposed to write on a piece of paper that our decisions depend on the state of our body. We want to learn a foreign language, or a programming language, but the body says “I don’t want to, turn on the TV series”. However, if we have some kind of reward (a visible effect of learning in the form of a bonus for passing exams), or an upcoming punishment (losing our job if we don’t master the language), this extra motivation makes us study longer.
But what if someone is a victim of learned helplessness? Such a person will not be sensitive to either rewards or punishments. He lives in a day-to-day stagnation. You cannot give such a person advice like “just do what I do”, because for such a person the effort needed to do the simplest activity is comparable to the effort you have to make to learn that new language and start earning twice as much.
There are psychological tricks, one of them I described above, very small work, but done every day until it becomes a habit and stops tiring, because admittedly decisions are very expensive in terms of energy, but habits are almost completely free. The second is to gradually get out of it by doing the simplest things that give immediate satisfaction. Gluing a model together. Putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Making a campfire and baking potatoes.
Today I came across a description of a study involving mice that may revolutionize the approach to this problem. The researchers there were testing “chronic stress associated with social failure”, in a rather primitive way, the mice were losing fights. They went into a slump, but more interestingly, the composition of their intestinal flora changed, and thus the concentration of fatty acids produced by the bacteria of that flora changed. Someone, however, came up with the idea of giving half the animals betaine. Not “betaine HCL”, which is used to “acidify the stomach”, but plain betaine, TMG.
And a miracle happened. The mice that were given this supplement retained the ability to keep going, despite their continued failures. Their gut flora remained largely unchanged, as did the concentration of the appropriate fatty acids. The question is, which came first, the horse or the cart? Was it the betaine that affected the bacteria in the mice’s gut, preventing a change in composition and thus preventing stress from occurring, or was it the betaine that affected the animal’s brain, so that stress did not occur, and this only prevented the flora from changing to a “stress” composition? In other words, is the change in gut flora composition a cause or an effect of stress?
I’m interested in betaine because it’s the basis for a smooth methylation process, who knows, maybe it just worked here? According to one fairly strong hypothesis, depression results from elevated homocysteine and impaired methylation, maybe it worked similarly in animals? Hard to decide.
The study shows a thing that inspires both fear and hope. Fear, because it shows how much of what we think is “our personality” depends on simple chemistry, a simple change in diet will make us behave very differently. Hope, because really “me” doesn’t care how much my well-being is “steered”, what’s important to me is being able to take that helm and steer it in a better direction. If the results translate to people, then one supplement, costing really pennies (I recently bought half a kg for $10) can change lives.
Where is this change of life, you ask? That the animal doesn’t get tired? Only that much?
THAT MUCH. The lack of fatigue from failure or from lack of quick results is really something that separates those who “succeed” from those who fall behind. In any field. Of course, it also takes a bit of thinking and setting yourself up with tactics to take action, but the result can literally be a complete life change. The internet-addicted ugly person can, of course, waste all their newfound energy on writing tedious posts on the internet about how nothing can be done, but they can also use it to go to the gym, to the hairdresser, and to the store to buy new clothes. And most importantly, to learn how to talk to other people and expand his circle of friends. He will find a girlfriend and start a happy family instead of being a miserable loser. A civil servant who wants to change his profession will finally learn and use the first useful skill in his life, instead of writing posts for 3 hours a day about how it’s impossible because of the climate in Poland. Instead of living from day to day with the specter of bankruptcy under the burden of loans, he will feel freedom for the first time.
For people who want to try. You NEED to make sure it is pure betaine, trimethylglycine, TMG. In no way can it be betaine HCL, you can easily tell because the HCL version is monstrously acidic. However, it is hard to decide what dose in humans would be equivalent to that used in mice. The animals got 2.5% in their drinking water. In humans, doses ranging from 0.5 grams to as much as 15 are used, with such high doses to be broken down into smaller portions.
One might be tempted to convert, a mouse eats 12 kcal per day and drinks 4 ml. If you convert the calories to human requirements, multiply the result times 200. For every 2400 kcal, the mice took in 800 ml of water, which contained 20 grams of betaine. That’s a pretty high dose, and I don’t know if it’s wise to risk it. If the effect depends on improving methylation efficiency, then much smaller doses, on the order of 1-2 grams per day, should suffice. However, if the composition of the intestinal flora is to be altered, then they should actually be somewhat higher, but there really is no way to know how safe that is. There have been similar doses used in clinical trials in humans with no side effects other than diarrhea from too large a single serving, but these are only preliminary studies.