Brain focus

As some of you may know, I suffer from two major maladies. One being repetitive strain in my arms which severely limits my ability to use a computer with traditional methods e.g. mousing and typing. The second being a vestibular disorder that was only recently diagnosed as utricle disease — essentially damage to the balance system of the inner ear. The symptoms for the latter are primarily unsteadiness and extreme fatigue that come and go (and theoretically should eventually fade away.)

Interestingly, I have noticed one activity that often makes both of them temporarily go away, or at least fade into the background. This is any activity that fully engages my brain — being on a particularly interesting phone call, or reading a book, or just sitting around thinking remarkably profound thoughts as I am prone to do. I’ve literally gone into these “sessions” feeling quite tired and dizzy, and come out of them refreshed and steady. And, if I have some arm pain, it too lessens.

This strikes me as odd because I would think the opposite would occur. With the vestibular disorder, my brain constantly has to compensate for the misinformation it’s getting about my head position (this process of compensation is very taxing on the brain and tires me out — your brain uses about 20% of your body’s metabolism.) I would predict that increased brain use would eat up more cranial resources, making me less able to compensate.

I have, however, come up with a completely unscientific theory to explain this. It gets into the idea that the brain is very much like a computer running software. We think of ourselves as having one conscious existence, but in reality, our brain is constantly performing all sorts of functions — analyzing the objects we see and sounds we hear (and providing context: it’s one thing to hear a lion’s roar, it’s another to know that means danger), planning upcoming activities, recalling memories. And think of occasions where you struggle to remember the name of the lead actor in “The Hitcher” (the original) and six hours later suddenly blurt out “C. Thomas Howell.” This would seem to indicate that your brain is, at times, unconsciously searching through your memory banks. I think you can think of these functions as similar to software programs. (Though, unlike software which can run on any section of a hard drive, brain “software” is assigned a particular location — if the part of your brain that understands language is removed by a ninja throwing star, you could lose your ability to understand language.)

Now, my belief is that when you get focused on a particular activity, you are actually “shutting down” many of these accessory programs. When I get absorbed by a phone call, I stop running the background “recollect names of obscure actors” program, or even part of the “analyze sights and sounds” program. (This is why, when you are focused, you can be slow to respond to someone walking in the room or a sound off in the distance.) By becoming absorbed by an activity, I’m actually using less brain resources. This is probably very similar to what happens during meditation.

Of course, there’s a downside to this. You get so focused on a call that you forget to pick the kids up from school, or that you had S&M sex with your wife and left her tied to the bed with a ball gag in her mouth.

This might all explain why my unsteadiness issues seem to fade with focused activity, but why arm pain? Well, I’m less confident of my answer here, but monitoring pain is in itself a program your brain has to run. If the pain isn’t too severe, your brain probably says, “I can ignore this for a while and focus on the task at hand.”

There’s one other interesting piece of evidence I’d like to throw out here: getting involved in an activity I don’t particularly want to be doing, like the 10 hours I had to spend to get this WordPress blog originally installed, seems to exaggerate my vestibular suffering. My suspicion here is that what I’m doing something I don’t want to be doing, I’m constantly looking for distractions — tasting my coffee, or trying to recall more important things I’d rather be doing. With each of those thoughts, I’m sort of opening up a new “program.” And just as your computer starts to complain when you run Photoshop, Dreamweaver, Internet Explorer, Outlook and voice dictation software, so too does my brain complain when overloaded. I run out of system resources.

5 Responses to “Brain focus”

  1. John Saleeby

    Say, what did Journey, Boston, and REO Speedwagon ever do to deserve being lumped into the same category as Styx? We owe those guys a heartfelt apology.

  2. Wil

    Eh, Boston’s all right, but Journey and REO Speedwagon have some serious marks against them for gayness. As do Styx. The trick is finding the right balance, like Night Ranger.

  3. John Saleeby

    Yeah, Boston was right up there in the Fag Rock sweepstakes. Heavy Chords, man, Heavy! I always ignored Night Ranger, except for the “MOTORIN’!” song in “Boogie Nights”, of course.

    “We’ve got to get out of here!!”
    “Yeah! Let’s get out of here!!!”
    “NOT ME!!!”

  4. John Saleeby

    Oh, I fucked up – “Jesse’s Girl” is the “We’ve got to get out of here!!” song. “MOTORIN’” is the “Pause As The Tape Flips Over” song. I don’t remember what the “He’s Chinese!!” song is.

    “SHUT UP, MAN!!!”

  5. Brahms on the creative state at My So-Called Penis

    [...] I’ve been having about the “creative state.” I’ve earlier discussed my belief that when your brain is in a focused state, it’s actually “shutting down” [...]