What Am I On?

January 2013

Lance Armstrong taped an interview Tuesday to admit that he used banned substances when he won his 7 Tour de France titles in 1999 through 2005. In 2001 he taped a Nike commercial with the voiceover:

This is my body, and I can do whatever I want to it. I can push it; study it; tweak it; listen to it. Everybody wants to know what I’m on. What am I on? I’m on my bike, busting my ass six hours a day. What are you on?

Most people couldn’t finish a Tour de France stage if they were “on” a bike with an engine. That Armstrong was on banned drugs doesn’t negate the grueling work he put in just to get close enough where the medicine put him over the top. I can certainly imagine how sitting in a hospital bed, near death, and watching as all manner of chemicals are injected into your arm might make you very comfortable with the idea of “substance X goes in and has effect Y.”

But that’s not the point.

Lopsided progress

Paul Graham in “The Acceleration of Addictiveness”:

It’s the same process that cures diseases: technological progress. Technological progress means making things do more of what we want. When the thing we want is something we want to want, we consider technological progress good. […] When progress concentrates something we don’t want to want – when it transforms opium into heroin – it seems bad. But it’s the same process at work.

Progress also yields EPO, and all of the other incredible substances that can alter the body and the brain. It would be impossible to develop the substances safely without developing incredible techniques in parallel for carefully studying their effects.

We usually only study carefully when we already know something abnormal is going on: testing a drug, or monitoring recovery from surgery. Like taking your car to a mechanic, there are a bevy of tools to diagnose any problems and just check on how things are running.

But once the car or human is back on the road, it’s back to operating with very limited instrumentation.

A car’s dashboard gives a readout of things like speed, gas tank level, engine temperature. These are roughly equivalent to the brain’s ability to convey things like hunger, thirst, or exhaustion. But in fact the car’s dashboard is more objective. It reports the actual levels, instead of just yelling “I want more” like a petulant child.

Let’s add the petulant child to our analogy - as the driver of the car. Your rational brain is mainly just making suggestions from the back seat, and can’t see the dashboard directly. He gets occasional reports on the dashboard from the child, who may or may not be telling the truth.

There are many ways to deal with a petulant child. You can guide him away from situations where he’s going to demand appeasement (not buying low quality but highly appealing food in the first place). You can buy earplugs that soften his screams (taking ibuprofen after skiing for 9 hours).

But what’s the equivalent of telling the child to “use your words”? Making him tell you why he’s asking you to do this? Or making him tell you the truth about what he can see on the dashboard?

This is where the progress becomes lopsided. There are all sorts of ways (drugs) to cause very precise and potent effects in the body. We have had ways of dealing with the petulant child, like ibuprofen, for decades. But we’re still only capable of muffling his screams or distracting him.

Our instrumentation, effectively, still sucks.

When you get a signal for “I’m hungry”, wouldn’t it be better to know why you were getting it? Are you getting it because something just reminded you of food, or are you bored and listening more closely for the signal, or are you actually low on reserves? What type of reserves are you low on? The human body isn’t just powered by a single chemical. It’s more like a hybrid car, except it can use not two but several different types of energy stores. Is my brain getting hungry signals because I’m low on glycogen? Maybe that’s fine if there’s a bunch of fat stored up and my rational brain knows that it actually wouldn’t hurt to use those reserves for a while.

People are more likely to be “on” a bad diet, or a new exercise routine, or too little sleep, than any serious drug. The effects of being on these more subtle “drugs” are far harder for the conscious brain to spot, and easier to ignore. Am I feeling lethargic around 3pm because I went with street meat for lunch? Ran 14 miles yesterday? Went to bed late two nights ago? Maybe it’s because I didn’t eat breakfast, or because I had coffee today and now I’m crashing, or because I didn’t have coffee today and I’ve become dependent on it. Or maybe it’s because I just read a pop science piece about how people often slump around this time, and everything else is perfectly normal.

So what am I on? I have no idea. But I sure would like to know, and it seems like getting this petulant child to grow up is a pretty interesting problem to solve.