essays/

mostly edited, structured pieces of writing (in the process of migrating from Medium)

my messy brain

seeing my brain in new light & trying to work with it instead of against it

I derive a lot of value from looking at my past journal entries, tweets and other bits of writing regularly, using timehop or the “on this day” function of dayone. There were many insights I have since forgotten, or I get reminded of the magical spirit underlying my old writing, other times I get to have a sense of how far I’ve come. Sometimes I stumble upon old book quotes I’ve highlighted, and they make my skin crawl in a good way. I saw a tweet the other day that describes this experience as psychoactive:

So that’s a large part of the reason why I started this website in the first place. I want a better system where I can access these material in a more efficient manner. But the work on this website has stuttered a lot mostly due to my health, and partially due to covid-induced languishing. When the lockdown first happened I thought I would have all the time in the world to work on stuff like this and read plenty of books, but in turns out I require stimuli from the external world in order to thrive in my inner world.


executive dysfunction?

Due to my excessive browsing of reddit in this period I also stumbled upon some ADHD subreddits, and this is just one of the many examples I could relate to:

I spoke to my partner and asked if she had such issues, because I thought everyone had them. Apparently, she has no problems doing what she wants to do. I don’t have many of the typical symptoms – such as hyperactivity or being scattered, but I relate to a lot of sentiment on the ADHD subs.

source: reddit
source: reddit

I wonder if there’s such a thing as mild ADHD: mild enough to not be outright disabling, but serious enough to impact one’s quality of life.

I also have a lot of maladaptive behaviour that stemmed from having ADHD-like difficulties. I don’t know how to pace myself, I tend to try to do something in one sitting, and I can only produce results if there is a hard deadline. So I do things in one spurt, burn out, and I don’t want to do it again for a very long time.

For a very long time I believed all of this was just part of my personality and did not think of executive dysfunction as a cause. It is new trying to understand this part of me and learning to co-exist with it. I have no idea whether is it due to some form of ADHD or is it an environmentally conditioned response to the trauma I had from the education system.

Hence apart from health and covid, I think the way my brain processes thoughts and decisions is so convoluted that it makes it difficult for me to work on things in a logical manner. There were so many times I thought how nice would it be if I can do my work early in the morning, because that is when my brain/mind is the freshest and most empty. But I wake up, have my morning coffee, and spend the entire morning scrolling the internet. I used to believe that it was because of procrastination, but until I seriously browsed those ADHD subreddits I never really thought that the procrastination could be due to neurological reasons, on top of psychological reasons. Anyway the brain is the psyche and the psyche is the brain, everything is electrical activity, so where do we truly draw the line between what is neurological and psychological?

I realised (probably again) I wasn’t scrolling the internet because I was avoiding work per se, but it was because:

  • my brain craved stimuli/dopamine
  • my brain feels so noisy, untethered and heavy that endlessly reading something feels like the only way to calm it down
  • it is a lot better to fill up my brain with endless information versus having to be with my thoughts, which can be mostly depressing in nature
  • thinking deeply enough for thoughts to become coherent in order to express them requires a lot of mental energy, and because of my health issues I now associate this as a burnout trigger
  • apart from mental energy thinking requires a sense of stillness, which my hyperactive brain almost never is – I observed this strange phenomenon where I was able to sit down and write only after an entire day of activity, but by then my mind felt too tired to work meaningfully in one continuous burst
  • because I don’t periodically dump my thoughts enough, it accumulates and becomes too noisy so it feels too overwhelming to try to sort it out, hence I scroll the internet more to avoid that noise, creating a vicious cycle

learning how to co-exist with my brain

Recognising that there may be neurological dysfunction makes a whole world of difference when it comes to trying to improve the situation. Previously I simply attributed these behaviours to my personality, and that has a lot of negative history and trauma attached to it. How do you begin to change something as ambiguous as a personality?

I attach a lot of negative emotions whenever I cannot make myself do whatever I want, because it is associated with laziness and a weak will. So the self-blame becomes the second arrow and it results in more emotional and mental blocks for me. I treated my own brain as an enemy trying to work against it: brute forcing, guilt-tripping, trying to enforce work styles of neurotypical people.

But I feel like perhaps I can learn to co-exist with it, or even thrive with it, if I can understand how it works better. My messy brain has given me a lot of gifts: absorbing information really fast, seeing connections and generating ideas everywhere – great for learning, except it tires and burns me out really quickly, preventing me from making sustained efforts.

I am in a better position to try new strategies to cope with my brain after having examined their root causes:

  • be okay with producing bits and pieces in many sittings instead of trying to squeeze them in one grand sitting
  • understand that editing messy drafts are a huge part of the actual creative process instead of trying to produce something good enough in one go, hopefully this will reduce the expectations and fear when I produce something incoherent
  • trust the editing process instead of outright being disappointed or frustrated with the drafts
  • recognise when I’m in a mental block and stop working when that happens. Usually I try to overcome them and I end up mentally exhausted, but being okay to stop allows me to come back to the drafts with new eyes
  • I love unstructured time and spontaneous creativity but it may be time to recognise that a scheduled routine would work better for me so I don’t have to waste mental energy deciding what to do
  • give my brain a break with non-mentally taxing stuff like outdoor activities
  • read more fiction at the moment instead of non-fiction, to temporarily stop cramping my head with more information
  • learning to take things one step at a time instead of always seeing everything as inter-connected series of acts with terrible repercussions
  • dump my thoughts more often, and be okay with them existing as short unconnected fragmented notes
  • be okay with publishing imperfect pieces (like this one), and be okay with coming back to edit it later if necessary. Treat pieces on this website as living documents, not final edits.
  • be more aware whenever I doomscroll for too long, that I’m usually trying to avoid feeling an emotion
  • down-regulate my dopamine addiction by reducing possible stimuli and try to practice meditation instead – to grow the ability to give pause and hopefully break my addictive patterns
  • in general with more practice, I hope to be more aware when the processes in my mind becomes unnecessarily convoluted

The stamina of trying

I guess I’m saying I cannot measure myself with other people’s standards because my brain just doesn’t work like that. I have to be more aware why my brain goes into self-combustion mode and how my conditioned maladaptive behaviours contribute to that. I have to relearn how I perceive everything, how I break work down into manageable pieces, how I set and meet my own expectations. How to treat myself better, to let go of all that self-judgment when things don’t turn out as I wish. I have to develop a new relationship with both my work and myself.

Can an old dog learn new tricks? I definitely believe so, because for the past few years I’ve been gradually developing new relationships to multiple areas in my life: exercise, love, food, self, etc.

Often it feels like I’m walking in circles, or taking one step forward and then two steps backwards; but only upon reading my (both private and public) journal entries I realise there is a marked difference probably only observable across large time jumps instead of on a day to day basis. The old me would have just given up, never to make another attempt for years if ever, but my evolving self is now requiring less time in between to retry, again and again. I call this “the stamina of trying”.

Maybe the underlying lesson here is to treat the self like any other subject, studying it seriously, and constantly try to ask, “why”, instead of just attributing it to a general cause like “personality”. Our personality, like our brains are extremely malleable, but it is a long, continuous journey to keep on shaping them.

Related resources

book Goodreads
The brain changes itself
by Norman Doidge completed: 25 Jul 2017

For people, postmortem examinations have shown that education increases the number of branches among neurons. An increased number of branches drives the neurons farther apart, leading to an increase in the volume and thickness of the brain. The idea that the brain is like a muscle that grows with exercise is not just a metaphor.

It taught me that it is never too late to change the structure of our brains.

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