Friday, April 06, 2007

How I get my brain to sit still sometimes

This is a response to Matt's post on "that buzzing feeling." He describes very well what my brain is like when I can't stop spazzing long enough to get my work done. I wrote a long response to him about my two most successful coping mechanisms, which are pair-programming (or pair-whatevering) and sleep deprivation (in the wee hours of the morning, I'm tired enough to not whirl all over the place, but barely conscious enough to be lucid on papers and such).

There's also books. Books keep my brain on track. It's like having someone there beside you, watching over your shoulder, guiding you into something; I read fast enough that I typically don't get bored (although if there's a book I can't read fast, I'll start exhibiting fidget-signs; see next paragraph). And so many things are in books that I managed to load enough stuff into my brain to stay ahead of classes - until about midway through college, when I started taking classes in things I hadn't heard of before (and therefore couldn't read ahead on). I was pretty sure I'd learn calculus, so I got a calculus book and read it. I had no idea what the heck Signals and Systems was.

I have the annoying anxiety habit of scratching my scalp when I'm working but can't quite get into something. I'm trying to change that into fiddling with my new class ring (except I lost my ring in the horrible mess that is my room and need to clean and look for it soon). I used to move around while reading, even walk while reading, because I needed the extra sensory input; I still do this sometimes. I used to run around the dormitory building in the middle of take-home tests my freshman year because I couldn't finish the tests otherwise.

In late elementary, I started a 2-year habit of picking on scabs on the forearm of my right hand - within a span of a couple weeks I had a few scrape-ups (pitching off my bike, jumping badly out of a tree) that left a lot of small scrapes on my right arm (my shield arm), and they scarred because I wouldn't stop picking them (my right arm still has some faded discolorations from that). I'd flick the corners of pages on books I was reading until my fingers started hurting. And then I would drum with my fingers on the table, but that was loud. Or bounce my knee up and down. Basically, I need to have some sort of twitch. I am trying to get this twitch to become something healthy or productive, like knitting or running.

"You could do anything if you stopped trying to do everything," a friend once told me. Right. But I can't stop. I jump around. (While writing just the first four paragraphs of this post I also read two webpages, did some google searches, implemented some tricky timer functions in my code, and replied to an email on a completely unrelated project.) I can't make myself focus, but I can snap into uber-focus when I'm around people devoted to the same thing; I can really blaze when I get into a book, or a problem, or a piece of music or a work of art - I can lose myself in that.

It's like being able to eat really, really fast, but not being able to pick what dish in the buffet line you're going to try next; your total food throughput (or productivity) is ridiculous, but if someone tells you to eat the spinach, you can't make yourself just go over and eat the spinach; you have to randomly keep on gorging on dishes until you happen to hit the spinach (or the homework you're supposed to get done).

It's like having a lossy stack for a brain. You push things on there, and oh - you need to do something else! So you push the old task onto the stack so you can pop it off later, and you just follow long threads of stuff that needs to be done and keep on pushing them on the stack so you can follow the trail back and get everything done eventually - but stuff magically disappears from the stack, so when you go back through popping the stack looking for things you were supposed to do, something will be missing. And then it becomes confusing because your train of thought unravels and it no longer makes sense why you were supposed to be doing the previous step. And that's when you forget to do it.

It's like spawning threads off your main process in large enough numbers that you can't actually manage them all concurrently all the time.

Lord, this is probably one of the most incoherent posts I've ever written.

2 comments:

Katie Rivard said...

Except... I feel the spinach thing, all the damn time. So it can't be that incoherent.

Grant Hutchins said...

I feel like I posted about this on here before, but it relates again.

When my brain is buzzing, which is also when my knees don't stop bouncing by the way, there is almost always music playing in my head, and once I noticed that, I was able to stop it by just thinking about silence.

Sensory deprivation is a great way to cope. Just don't limit the depravation to "real" sensory experiences!

Also, realizing this and thinking about the silence was one of the biggest Zen successes I've felt in a long time

Some people could easily decide to treat the symptom and take some sort of pill, but now I understand part of the root cause and can stop it at will. I have a similar experience with hiccups. I have found a way to relax the back of my throat that I cannot easily describe that ceases the hiccups immediately.