Hide table of contents

I've found lots of examples of outstanding physical performance under a vegan diet, but I've been unable to find examples of bold theoretical breakthroughs being made under a vegan diet (the closest example I could find was Ramanujan, but there were other things about Ramanujan that suggest that there's absolutely no way most of us could live the same life and then end up in the same place), and my own experience has been really discouraging. After about 10 days on a vegan diet, regardless of my energy levels or legible performance metrics, I'll pretty reliably stop being able to, or stop being interested in progressing original ideas.

There are lots of possible exits here: Vegans and inventors were rare until very recent history, we shouldn't expect to have many records of people who were both, we might end up with none, even if there's no relationship between those things. It's also fairly likely that the effect would just be a result of a creatine deficiency, or a choline deficiency, or something like that, which can be fixed with a supplement (although Dr Gregger doesn't recommend it due to the incidence rate of high contamination in creatine supplements, but maybe you can find a brand you trust.)
(Anecdote on choline: I have a vegetarian friend who, at some point, stopped thinking in the sort of focused/precise/fluid/driven way that our project needed. They speculated that it might have been because they were on choline initially, then stopped. So I said yeah, I noticed a change, try getting back onto the choline? I don't think they ever got around to it. The lack of concern that they showed is actually one of the things that bugs me about this, because I also experience that, when I'm low: It kinda seems like we have be on the supplement to hold onto an understanding of why we need to stay on the supplement, and as soon as we lapse we forget what it was like, and how important it was? (Depression also seems to work this way. A depressed person often cannot imagine or remember not being depressed.))

There does seem to be a consistently replicated finding that supplementing creatine enhances memory and intelligence in vegans. (and doesn't for omnivores) (baseline cognitive performance in vegans is similar to omnivores, but personally I'm kind of expecting it to turn out that to be a result of vegan-leaning demographics starting on a higher base, then being lowered)

But even if it can be fixed with a supplement, I don't think most of us are taking creatine and choline! We probably need to have a conversation about that.

Previous discussion of health and veganism, when they touched on concerns about cognitive impacts, generally failed to allay them.




New Answer
New Comment

7 Answers sorted by

You could check https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_vegans and https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_vegetarians

I see Brian Greene (theoretical physicist), Douglas Hofstadter (cognitive scientist and physicist), George Church (geneticist) and Christine Korsgaard (philosopher) on the list of vegans, although you could check if they were producing good work while vegan. I haven't checked the list of vegetarians, but there are probably plenty of famous examples there. Edward Witten (Fields Medalist mathematical/theoretical physicist) is/was vegetarian.

There are also plenty of famous vegan artists and entrepreneurs, and their work often takes originality or novelty.

[just having a quick look at George Church]. Said there he's "off and on vegan" which suggests to me that he was having difficulty getting it to work. But I checked his twitter and he said he was vegan as of 2018. He studies healthspan, so his voice counts. His page on his personal site unfortunately doesn't discuss his approach to dieting or supplements but maybe he'd link something from someone else if someone asked.

I'd be pretty cautious about putting much weight on those experiences of yourself or your friend that you've mentioned. Doctors see people everyday who swear that crystals cured their arthritis or that medication A works for them but not medication B (when B is just A with a different brand name). I've learnt to become very skeptical of the patterns I recognise in my own health. I've had experiences where I could have sworn that A was causing B that later turned out to be wrong.

As it is I don't see why your prior would be "vegan diets make thinking worse" rather than "vegan diets don't affect thinking" (my own suspicion) or even "vegan diets make thinking better" (I'm sure someone out there has their own anecdotes supporting this)

It wasn't my prior at all. It was a response to observations that took many years to arrive at, it is also a response to some empirical evidence, which I mentioned.

Agree with other commenters that we shouldn’t put too much weight on anecdotes, but just to provide a counter-anecdote to yours I’ve been ~99% vegan for over 3 years and it seems like my thinking ability and intellectual output has if anything improved during that time.

My best guess is that it varies based on the person and situation, but for the majority of people (including probably me) a decently planned vegan diet has ~no effect on thinking ability.

Could you say more about what "decently planned" means to you? I think this is where a lot of the dragons live. 

Having been on a "close to vegan" diet for many years with quite catastrophic results I would like to point out a couple of subtleties in this sphere. 

The deficiencies associated with any diet can take years to appear. For example in a zero B12 diet it can take 6 years for a deficiency to appear. During this time the body is in effect "eating itself" i.e. sunstituting one form of animal food (oneself) for food eaten.

Often, as in my case, the initial switch in diet was associated with an improved sense of well-being due to not eating junk food any more.  This is sometimes referred to as the vegan honeymoon.

There is often a large gap between the level of supply of nutrients that will avert frank deficiency and an optimal supply. But it is often assumed for example that if you don't have scurvy that you have plenty of vitamin C.

I learned the  hard way that much of the scientific literature is worthless or worse (anti-knowledge). In particular you cannot learn anything reliable from reading only abstracts. This may be obvious to some but is not obvious to many. Financial and ideological biases loom large and a lot of research is only published because of the "publish or perish" mandate. Purely observational studies are almost all useless, and "corrections for confounders" are not reliable. 


No idea how to go about finding information on this, but by my personal priors I would weight various kinds of evidence as follows:

  • ~0 weight on any anecdotal evidence,
  • low weight on studies and clinical trials,
  • moderate weight on arguments by biological plausibility.

Being related to diet, my prior is that people are usually over thinking it. However I have always agreed that it seems unlikely that a fully vegan diet has no nutritional downsides without supplementation.

I've done a cursory search, just wikipedia, here are my thoughts on the biological plausibility of deficiencies among vegans in your two suggestions, creatine and choline:

  • creatine
    • is only found in animal tissue
    • is absorbed in digestion
    • is also metabolized from amino acids found in plants
    • ->
    • seems like it could plausibly be something that vegans are deficient in
  • choline
    • is an essential dietary component, not being metabolized sufficiently in enough quantity
    • deficiency is rare in humans
    • is found in the same quantity per gram in wheat as in chicken
    • ->
    • seems unlikely that it is something that vegans are deficient in

You should only put approximately zero weight on anecdotes that got to you through a sensationalism-maximizing curation system with biases you don't understand, which I hope this wasn't? Regardless, the anecdotes are mostly just meant to be clarifying examples of the kind of thing effect that I am trying to ask about, I don't expect people to pass them along or anything.

I decided not to talk about biological plausibility, because I don't get the impression pharmacology or nutrition follows reductive enough rules that anyone can reason a-priori about it ver... (read more)

Is your standard "genius-level", or even "genius-level technical work"? Or being highly productive in intellectual work? I think plenty of philosophers and EAs who have done good research, including at prominent EA orgs, have been vegan or at least vegetarian and will probably meet the last standard.

Some who (I think) have been veg (not sure if vegan specifically or if they're still veg): Peter Singer (~vegan), Will MacAskill, Brian Tomasik (lacto-veg), multiple research staff at Rethink Priorities (where I work) even outside animal welfare, Sam Bankman-Fried (vegan), Rob Wiblin and Howie Lempel (and others?) at 80,000 Hours, I'd guess some research staff at Open Phil and not just those focused on animal welfare. Vegetarianism and veganism are very common in EA (https://rethinkpriorities.org/publications/eas2019-community-demographics-characteristics), so we shouldn't be surprised to find good examples (but not necessarily geniuses), and if we didn't, that could be a bad sign.

"genius" doesn't seem usefully precise to me? (Is a genius even still a genius once they've found their way into a part of the world where their level of pragmatic creativity is ordinary?)
I'm looking for a sort of... ability to go for extended, rapid, complicated traversals of broad unfamiliar territories in your head, alone, without getting lost, and to find something of demonstrable value that no one has ever seen before. That kind of thing.

That list might be a good start, but I don't know. Can you show us examples of divergent, multi-stage, needle in a ... (read more)

Maybe Derek Parfit (vegetarian), Chris Olah (vegan), Mark Xu (vegan until this year https://markxu.com/transitioning-vegan), Rohin Shah (~vegan) are other examples?

I think there's been some impressive technical work out of GPI, and generally in population ethics and decision theory, and I have specific authors in mind, but I can't tell if they've been vegetarian through Google. If you're really invested in this, I can share names and papers, and you can ask them directly if they've been veg.

I'd say people working in population ethics are reasonably likely to be veg.

Do you have specific works by EAs or EA-adjacent people involving "divergent, multi-stage, needle in a haystack breakthroughs" in mind? And are multi-stage (sequentially dependant?) breakthroughs more impressive than a similar number of breakthroughs that aren’t sequentially dependant or that happen far apart in time from each other? Or are you thinking of something where a single breakthrough isn't enough on its own for useful or interesting conclusions, and more are needed until something valuable can be produced produced?
mako yass
Yes, because... it means they couldn't have been finding low-hanging fruit. When one problem leads to another, you don't get to wander off and look for easier ones, you have to keep going down one of these few avenues of this particular cave system. So if someone solved a contiguous chain of problems you can be sure that some of those were probably genuinely really hard. It also requires them to develop their own understanding of something that nobody could help them with, and to internalize that deeply enough to keep going. Sequences like this occur naturally in real-world projects, so if they're avoiding them it's kinda telling. ?. More are needed before we can make a judgement. I'd believe that lots of value can be produced without any of these big leaps.
But you can also just judge each breakthrough separately, conditional on what they had access to. If they're deep into a problem past where anyone has been and then go further, that might be more impressive, but it may not be, in case it's easy to identify the next (possibly hard) subproblem after solving the last subproblem. So you can approach it locally/greedily, without thinking ahead much to where you need to go, only about where you are now and the next step. I think upper-year and grad-level pure math and theoretical computer science problems can be like this, although maybe not as hard as you're asking for. Something harder I have in mind would be something like having a non-local/non-greedy approach to solving a problem, where you have a major breakthrough just to get a sketch of a proof or to come up with possible lemmas, and then it takes further breakthroughs to close things up. If your sketch is wrong, then all the work can become basically useless, and you don't progress things for the next people to try (except by ruling out a dead end). It's like thinking more moves ahead in chess with multiple hard moves to identify, compared to just making the same number of hard moves to identify in the same game, but never part of the same sequence simulation in your head. Both are multi-stage, but the second one is local/greedy and isn't more impressive than making the same number of hard to identify moves across games, fixing the total number of games played.
Also, breakthroughs across very different areas rather than all concentrated in the same area demonstrates greater flexibility and generalizability of their strengths.

SBF is vegan, and while his day job isn't "intellectual" in the conventional sense, it takes a lot of intellect

Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 1:04 PM

Maybe you could eat beef and dairy to hedge your bets nutritionally while minimizing your animal-suffering impact? Of course, your question can also be interesting to discuss in its own right, but to the extent you worry about the issue, this could be a solution.

That's especially easy to do where I live, we don't have factory farming here (cows go for "finishing" at a grain feed only at the end of their life, for a short time, too short for serious stomach problems). Their lives kinda seem positive on net.

However, the conservation issues are worse, methane emissions are high, and runoff from farming messes up the streams and lakes, threatening many native fish species. [realizes I'm talking to brian tomasik] Evolution spent billions of years creating the species. I don't think we'll ever create anything quite like them. There's a sacred kind of beauty in them: They were real, they'd be one of the few things we knew that weren't created by us or our peers. They were created by the thing that created us.
We'll find them very beautiful one day.
Losing them wouldn't be such a tragedy if we could just record the epigenomes and the womb environments, so that we could reconstruct them in a more humane form, later.
But I don't think we're doing that?
(Can the womb environment be figured out from the epigenomes and simulations?)

Bivalves, then?

Potentially relevant doc by Elizabeth van Nostrand: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1dKaPvviGNIM3xGbP8NBRd1MytXBVvGi7daP6cW4z1RQ/edit

Situationist theory: The meat eater grinds to shine for the same reason gentry with servants do; a kind of latent guilt, to be reminded every day that so much has been sacrificed for them, a noblesse oblige, a visceral pressure to produce feats that vindicate the decadence of their station. (Having dedicated tutors may do a bit of this as well.)

A theory like this would explain why it doesn't seem to be a result of missing nutrients, contending that it's psychosocial.

EA Auckland Research Gang Chat got curious about the details of ramanujan's diet. This account of his medical history during his time in England has a lot of cool details.

It seems like practicing Brahmins are not supposed to eat egg, but he seems to have eaten some when he was at this sanitorium and couldn't get anything better. Interesting note:

Rajasic foods [forbidden] are foods that increase ones mode of passion which is also an obstacle in their spiritual path.

It does seem to me that if you want to avoid flights of passion, you'll avoid the mode of thought I associate with being well stoked with creatine.
I'm curious, how long have they been living under these rules? (Historical evidence seems somewhat unclear, "No Brahmin, no sacrifice, no ritualistic act of any kind ever, even once, is referred to" in any Indian texts between third century BCE and the late first century CE. He also states that "The absence of literary and material evidence, however, does not mean that Brahmanical culture did not exist at that time, but only that it had no elite patronage and was largely confined to rural folk, and therefore went unrecorded in history")

Seems like a Q more suited for LW? 

I think it would have gotten better answers there, but I'd guess that if this health trap is real, LWers are much less likely to fall into it (they'd notice the loss), and veganism isn't really as on-topic there.

[comment deleted]10mo0
[comment deleted]10mo0
Curated and popular this week
Relevant opportunities