The Derangements

How fasting rewired my brain

Lapham’s Quarterly


An emaciated Bodhisattva seated on a throne flanked by gods and worshippers, second to third century, Gandhara, via the British Museum

By Beau Friedlander

Here’s what happened when I didn’t eat for prescribed periods of time: it affected every cell in my body, and my mind started working better. I can’t prove any of this. There’s science out there that might explain it, but that work is far from settled.

A few times in my life, I have experienced a state of mind that felt “right.” But I didn’t know why or what specifically caused the mental clarity, acuity, focus, and sense of well-being until I began fasting. Each time I did so, I found the same result until I came to understand that not eating and thinking straight were, for me, in some way connected.

I usually tell strangers the same story when I’m trying to sell them on fasting: I’ve been playing classical guitar for more than forty years. There have always been pieces from the more advanced repertory that I couldn’t play no matter how much I practiced. My hands simply were unable to do what my mind wanted them to do.

The work of Argentinian guitarist and composer Jorge Morel is one of the better examples of music I could not play. I couldn’t get the syncopation into my hands. Beyond that, it was just very complex. A few of the adaptations of Bach Lute Suites were similarly beyond my musicianship.

On the fifth day of what’s called a fast-mimicking diet protocol, I was suddenly able to play one of the no-way pieces by Morel. I didn’t need the sheet music, which was weird because I hadn’t memorized the piece. It was by no means concert-ready, but there it was in my hands and my mind simultaneously.

‘Guitar Player (Joueur de Guitare)’ by François Bonvin, 1861, via National Gallery of Art, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund

I hadn’t been practicing more than usual when I had the breakthrough, and it had been a while since I had tried to play this particular piece of music. While on that diet I found the Bach was much more accessible — again, having acquired the ability to sight-read them at a decent tempo seemingly out of nowhere. I didn’t suddenly become more talented. Yet now I could play “Danza Brasilera,” and it seemed to be the result of the fasted state.



Lapham’s Quarterly

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