Tag Archives: brain hacking

the junk drawer of the brain

I’ve had a lot of metaphors for how I’ve felt since the COVID-19 crisis started. The most frequent I use for myself is an image where my mind is clogged with short pieces of thread, a drifting mass of incomplete thoughts that I am constantly trying, and failing, to braid together into coherent strings. This is often at its worst when I have not taken the time or headspace for myself, which I need in order to focus on smoothing all those little pieces of thread out. Once I parse through my thoughts, I can often transform all those incomplete fragments into substance that can be subsequently spun into extended threads of consciousness. It’s a new condition for me, because while I am used to writing to make sense of my thoughts, I am not used to having my thoughts this fragmented.

My brain has become a junk drawer.

This isn’t a new condition, but seems to be worsened by two separate factors, both circumstantial from the pandemic. The first is from my professional sphere, combination of task switching and call overload that is killing my discipline to focus. My job often requires a lot of task switching, but the virtual nature of my team has resulted in a substantial uptick in how many times I am task switching per day. With a dispersed team, we are all IMing each other instead of engaging in person at the office. This results in more interruptions and task switches, as we can no longer rely on the visual clues of a person at work to better time our messages with their breaks from flow. We also IM much more because of the lack of hallway conversations, an inability to chat with each other in natural conversations that would be far more efficient than the all-day random Teams chats we use as a substitute. The result is a constant switch between Microsoft applications. I feel my ability to focus on just writing a PowerPoint is deteriorating as a result.

Eliminating Task Switching to Improve Productivity of Teams
The knowledge worker at the best of times.

The second factor is from my domestic sphere. It is the nature of being the person at home, working, with a child in the house. Let me preface again here, I have a child that requires far less effort than he would have two years ago. He’s able to log himself into Google Classroom and Hangouts and get through his own day. He sets up his own playdates in the afternoon and bikes (or scoots) to play dates and sportball practices all by himself. He logs himself in to his online activities: D&D, comedy, guitar. But even with all this, I am still constantly identity shifting throughout the day between Boss Lady and Mama. I’ll come out to refill my water bottle and find Ben sitting on the couch, camera off, reading instead of participating in class. I’ll find him procrastinating assignments or playing Words with Friends during school hours. I’ll realize that it’s 2pm and while I have been eating protein bars and leftovers at my own desk, he has not eaten lunch yet because he was too distracted reading to eat. And while he tries not to bother me, if I am not in a call, he will come in to ask for permission to watch TV or shift his Fortnite time from the weekend to a weekday.

Fortnite for Nintendo Switch - Nintendo Game Details
“No, child, you may only pursue your highly addicting game on weekends”

All of this is exhausting and is training my brain to expect to go from one task to another instead of remaining in flow. Flow is that state of being on which I wrote a solid blog post a couple years ago, the week before I started my “new” job at OMD. Here is the TED talk that also summarizes this state:

I need the efficiency from a flow state to get through my day as a knowledge worker. Being in flow is also where I really create the work that shows the talent and intellect that powers my career. Like much of my childhood, my career is partially built on a reputation for being “smart”. The pieces of work that showcase my intelligence are built in a state of flow. Without being able to go into that state, where my ideas come together into a narrative and where I’m able to put something together that ties together all the tech and details that go into the back-end of my job with the concepts that make up the front-end of it, that is where I excel.

Transforming knowledge workers into innovation workers to improve corporate  productivity - ScienceDirect
Insight, information and knowledge all require focus

Where I am struggling now is that all of this disconnect, all of these short attention activities, do not deliver the value to my work that just being present and paying attention does. It’s multitasking on calls, it’s spending more time flipping through emails, it’s being unable to work consistently without getting distracted doing stuff that is kind of worthwhile but not worthwhile in the context of interrupting my workday. Part of this is just having too many things to do (did Anthem process the claim for Ben’s doctor visit? is OptumRX sending my prescription?) but part of it is that the quick tasks feel easier than the longer tasks, and surfing for weekend getaways or quarantine AirBNBs feels easier at any time than working. Now that my brain is in this horrible place of constant disconnect and short-term procrastination, it’s exceptionally hard to be present in ways that reinforce my value at work, much less get anything worthwhile done…and those are the losses and misses that are ratcheting my anxiety up…and anxiety is exhausting.

I could now go into all the ways I am going to fix this, but I think instead of that, I am going to process this for the weekend and re-set the habits and behaviors. Maybe it’s just putting a “BE PRESENT” post-it on the wall behind my computer. Maybe it’s resuming meditation. Maybe it’s focusing on goals, not tasks. I am pretty sure it is all these things and more, but something has to change to combat the clutter that I feel my head is just constantly stuffed with every day.

out of hibernation

I am a big fan of the Thursday Next series, the alternate reality, extremely British series by Jasper Fforde. Last year, I read his new, even more insane book, “Early Riser“:

“Bonkers” is a very good word to describe this one

The basic premise of “Early Riser” is that everyone hibernates, like bears, through the winter. Society is therefore structured around the hibernation season: eating more leading up to winter, surviving the winter without starving to death, and shutting down everything that isn’t absolutely essential during the winter season. For those of us with seasonal depression, this actually sounds like a fantastic idea as it would relieve 100% of the pressure on us to function during the winter months.

Unfortunately, we do not live in a society structured around winter hibernation, and as a result, I have to keep functioning until the time change and vernal equinox in March. With depression though, I have to expend twice as much energy to accomplish what feels like half as much work. It is difficult to start an activity or action, and I do not feel any sort of joy or sense of reward from completing it. With the commitment level that I have in my life, I then feel stress, anxiety and guilt for not having completed the tasks that I owe to other people, whether that is at my paying job, my volunteer work, or to my family. The resulting pressure mounts up over the next few months and by March, I’ve usually hit a wall:

Cycle of depression and anxiety

This year, however, I’ve been blessed in that spring seems to have come early to the Northeast. The weather this weekend has been sunny and brisk, but not freezing. The world is filled with light and early blooming spring flowers. I feel like I am waking up, like my hibernation is over, like it is mentally safe to emerge and take back on my usual day to day existence without having to fear that I won’t be able to honor or complete my commitments. We may be doomed to changing weather patterns in the Anthropocene, but at least the 2020 weather patterns are benefiting me personally!

Still. I wouldn’t mind a hibernation period every winter. I would love it if nothing was expected of me every winter for about three months, while I slept and allowed my brain to rest and heal itself. Perhaps someday I’ll be in a position where I can align my life with the seasons, allow myself not to fight and struggle as hard as I can against the constraints of depression every winter. Perhaps I am made to hibernate. Between the idea of hibernation, and the concept of literature as a driving force of society, Fforde is onto a lot of alternate reality ideas I would be happy to get behind.

optimizing my brain

It has become fashionable, the past few years, to attempt to “hack” one’s brain.  This is an attempt to get one’s brain to run better, faster, smarter.  It is also a great way to sell something called “nootropics“, a futuristic, Orphan Black-esque term for a new wave of vitamins (mostly amino acids and vitamin B derivatives) that are supposed to aid with such “hacking”.

Image result for brain hacking

This is your brain…ON THE FUTURE

I believe, to an extent, that there is some brain “hacking” that can be done, although I do not love the term.  To me, it smacks of Silicon Valley bro-ness, the kind of toxic masculinity that has made the tech industry deeply awful for women.  I prefer to think of it as brain optimization, rather than hacking, as optimizing my brain is really about understanding the 2+ pounds of electricity and protein that lives inside my skull, that contains everything I am.  If I can better understand the mechanisms that govern the electrical impulses that make up my thoughts, then can I get a better grip on the efficiency of those thoughts?

I recently read Stealing Fire, a book on the use of substances or other methods of altering one’s brain for extraordinary results.  While it does focus extensively on the use of mind-altering drugs, it counts everyday substances in that category, everything from coffee to prescription medications. We may not all be using ketamine for out of body experiences, but most of us are using some form of chemical to alter our brains.  It was an interesting perspective, much more on the metaphysical plane, putting the quest for brain control and mind altering more into the realm of philosophy (“I think, therefore I am” sort of meta-ness), telling a universal human story rather than limiting the results to th emore prosaic productivity boost that “brain hacking” promises.  “Stealing Fire” was a more grandiose picture of mankind’s ongoing quest to lift up our mental and spiritual energy through physical substance (see also: Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas), and it contextualized the “brain hacking” trend as really just being a small corner of that quest.

My own quest falls somewhere in between the metaphysical and the mundane, as it’s directly related to the mental and spiritual effects of having a chronic depressive condition.  For the decade plus that I took Wellbutrin, from 2005 until, well, six weeks ago, I grappled with its effects on my actual being.  Was being on this substance altering who I was, in any way?  My ultimate answer to that question was that not only did that particular non-SSRI antidepressant not change who I was, it actually allowed me to be the person I was meant to be.  It was a substance that unlocked my brain.  The Wellbutrin reduced the paralyzing depression that had previously impacted my ability to live my life on a consistent basis.   Problem solved, I thought, at the time, as I went on to build my life, meeting my husband, building my career, moving to Brooklyn, building the Scout organization, building my friend circle – my life is extensive, expansive, and has few limits on how much I can do in it.

Reducing the impact of the biological condition of depression actually brought forth who I am as a person, allowing me to explore my own mental and spiritual state without the intervening detriment of poor mental health.

The problem is that the substance I relied on to make me, well, me, wasn’t consistent.  My depression flare-ups became longer and increased in frequency over time.  When I changed my body’s response to food by switching to a Paleo food lifestyle in 2013 , the condition improved again.  And over time, rather than change my dosage, I began to try to identify more and more ways that weren’t the Wellbutrin that would net similar results to the antidepressant: cardio or HIIT exercise, being in sunlight, not drinking, avoiding grains and dairy, avoiding sugar, getting a good night’s sleep, meditation, journaling, etc.  Some of the tools made more difference than others, but overall, I began to understand what had an impact on my brain, and began to understand the links between the mental, the physical, and the spiritual.

All these physical, mental and spiritual factors are interconnected, and we cannot separate them if we wish to be whole and happy.

And then I finally faced reality.  The antidepressants I had been taking weren’t working.  They likely hadn’t worked for some time.  In fact, in November, my brain wouldn’t recognize the anti-depressants or the caffeine I added to them each day,   I thought I had Lyme disease, I was so exhausted, until I finally cut back on caffeine, added some nootropics, and felt better for a while.  I made it through the winter, and then as soon as we hit the March equinox, I went off the substance I had been using for thirteen years to alter my brain chemistry.

Needless to say, it was unpleasant.  The first few weeks, I could only stay awake until 2pm.  Twenty-five years of caffeine reliance plus thirteen years of using a stimulant as a basic part of my brain chemistry did not allow me to remain at one 8oz cup of coffee per day.  Instead, I felt like a puppet whose strings had been cut, drooping and looking for the system that had pulled me through my life.  I started eating for energy, as working from home gives me endless access to snacks, many of them of the higher carbohydrate variety from Ben’s snack assortment.  I could barely drag myself to the gym or through workouts, I was so tired, yet I couldn’t sleep at night. It was a textbook withdrawal.

Two weeks of this and I was almost in tears at the lack of productivity and the lost time.  A month in, and I sprained my ankle and had to weigh in at the doctor on my visit and realize, it wasn’t just that I’d lost time, I’d gained almost ten pounds of weight that would have to come back off if I was to fit in my client visit suit or my tick-proof camp pants ever again.  This isn’t just about vanity or societal pressure, but about not having to replace my utilitarian clothing in a larger size.

So now I have to not only hack my brain to run without antidepressants, but also have to “hack” my own EXTREMELY STUBBORN biology to lose the weight.  Which is a whole other entry as well.

Image result for plump as a partridge lose weight

Yep, this about sums it up.  Thanks @lacomtessejamie

And I have to recognize that despite all this “hacking” or “optimization”, or whatever I wish to call it, there are going to be days when I just…can’t.  Last night, I had a rough day “at” work, in that I made a major misunderstanding on one of my new accounts in how I interpreted an agenda topic as related to the client’s business.  I also failed to move outside the house, choosing instead to rest my ankle.  I was also tired by 4pm as a result, and I just felt hopeless.  How am I supposed to live my life, I thought, if I can’t stay awake until 4pm even with a good night’s sleep, if I have an ankle that will seemingly NEVER HEAL, if I can’t even understand the job I am supposed to be good at

There are always going to be days in which I feel like I can’t.  And it’s going to be hard to change that and say, I can, without having a stimulant to get me all hyped up and enthusiastic.

So now, what I have to work on, is getting up every day and saying, “I can,” and pushing myself through the work that will optimize my brain to replace the load of stimulants that I cranked through it since I was a twentysomething junior digital media buyer living in Venice Beach.  I am a different person now: I acquired several additional layers of person along the way, including a husband and son.  I built a life in which many people rely on me: my friends, my colleagues, my community.  I built that life using a brain I used a commercial antidepressant to optimize.  Now I have to achieve the same results without that medication.

Most of the time, I feel like this is a story where the moral is that the Wellbutrin didn’t actually work, and therefore was really only a “magic rock” kind of thing: I did this all by myself and the antidepressant was believing in myself all along!  And then I’m tired at 4pm or can’t sleep CLOWN’LL EAT ME and think, why did I give up the stimulants that gave me the energy to push through this, even if they weren’t actually fixing the problem I took them to fix?

The answer is, because those antidepressants, while they worked great to correct my perception of my condition, weren’t fixing the actual problem that causes my depression.  I have a genetic biological condition that alters my brain chemistry enough to impact my mental state.  The NRI was just pushing me through that condition by effectively overriding it.  The most recent research on depression suggests it is more akin to a flare up of a biological condition than just a matter of “being sad”.  Taking a stimulant every single day may have forced my brain to remain in an upbeat state by altering my brain chemistry and increasing the amount of norepinephrine floating around in it, but it doesn’t fix the underlying physical flare-up that caused that mental state to occur in the first place.

And that physical aspect of the condition – that I can optimize.  For that, I can take physical, real-space actions to reduce the impact on my mental health.  That’s where all this brain “hacking”, optimization, whatever one wants to call it – that’s where it comes in.  It’s a quest for the “true self” on a higher level, but on a day to day basis, it’s “what actions can I take to keep my brain in a healthy state where it will crank out client presentations and not sink into a state of despair?

And that – that is another entry, for another day.  Probably tomorrow.  Because one of the bright sides to being benched with the ankle this week, is that I have extra commute time to re-invest in writing blog posts – one of the other many things I’ve identified that makes my brain a little happier.  A few days of writing, a return to a solid meditation practice, it’ll all help optimize my brain.