One theory about mental disorders indicates that the issue (at least in some folks) may be caused by overactivity or underactivity in certain portions of the brain. I have read of OCD and ADD being analogized as the “overheating” of the brain.
In the sense of OCD this seems somewhat intuitive. The brain locks itself into a cycle of hyperactivity…but with ADD it seems less obvious. If the brain is “hyperactive” then shouldn’t focus increase? But in fact focus decreases, or at least the ability to volitionally choose what one will focus on decreases.
Similarly, depression seems to have some correlations, at least to Dr. Daniel G. Amen with overactivity in the brain…but this usually results in reduced feeling, reduced appetites, reduced motivation, and so on. This seems counter-intuitive.
I think this well describes the way I experience my brain as functioning. Lets take a look at what might be a typical “free” day for me (I’ve bolded those items which are pertinent to this particularly post, but also included other aspects which are interesting, although I am not sure how they figure into this…):
- I awaken groggily. I do not awaken feeling refreshed or awake, it is a struggle to get out of bed.
- I begin reading – email, websites, books. I dive into whatever material might interest me.
- As I continue to read and learn I experience a significant number of thoughts operating simultaneously – all productive. I make intuitive connections between topics. I feel energetic and inspired.
- Reading or working on whatever eventually gives way to a feel of being overwhelmed, listlessness, and depression. I experience existential angst. I feel uncertain about my ability to know or understand, hopeless in my ability to change or lead, I feel overwhelmed by the act of existence.
- I want to relieve my existential angst, so I seek diversion – a tv show, a movie, a video game, a chore, or sleep.
- Upon awakening I usually feel somewhat refreshed and repeat the learning, working, experience until I again experience this existential angst and stop, relieve existential angst, and repeat.
- This cycle may continue throughout the day and night. If I am interacted with during a period of stability I will respond well, but I have extreme difficulty being sociable when I am attempting to relieve the existential angst.
- This is made the more confusing by the fact that alternatingly, the work / learning can relieve angst rather than cause it – in fact, it usually does so for a period of time until it doesn’t…at which point it becomes again overwhelming.
Now, at one level I view this as being the natural result of learning / working – the suffering of existential angst. At another level, one might ask if this existential angst is caused by the overheating of the brain – at which time I then embark on emergency cool-down measures, and when the brain has cooled sufficiently I reengage it.
As someone who works in IT, the commonalities with my experiences with computers are interesting. For example, we oftentimes see computers which can run a certain process effectively – but that over time or with increased stress will fail. Placed into a state of rest (or even just rebooted) they will be able to pick up the pace again.
Even more interesting is that there is sub-optimal functioning at which the system is at rest (being relatively unproductive), a state of optimal productivity (at which it is accomplishing much), a state of over-optimal productivity (a slope which leads to overheating and crash), and the state of crashing/crashed.
Ideally, one would desire to remain (whether as an individual or a computer system) at the level of optimal productivity – but it seems that some law inclines us towards increasing productivity which eventually results in a loss of productivity.
Now, the question is, how do we correct such improper functioning? The temptation is to provide pat answers with simplistic explanations. Please don’t – those make me angry. If it was quite that simple I am sure I would have gotten it all figured out and settled already. On the other hand, I believe that most things are relatively simple to comprehend but difficult to exercise.
[Consider this somewhat free-flowing thought, I am not here writing in my usual prepared way in which I carefully consider or edit my thoughts...which I do quite frequently, but rather this being a stream of consciousness in which I am expressing emotion which I recognize may not be the "way it ought to be," - but I think before something can become the way it ought to be, we must acknowledge the way it is.]
Now, there is an additional difficulty – at least for me. That is that social interactions can be a means of augmenting my functionality, but they also cause me to overheat. Charity likes to talk through problems when they occur, I like to cool off first. It is not that I am emotionally volatile, but rather that I feel a certain almost physical sensation of being overheated. My brain is foggy and requires cooling down before it will be able to think logically or reasonably about what it feels.
At this juncture most folks just want me to express my feelings – “tell me how you feel” – the difficulty here is that one cannot readily describe what one feels. if one where to vocalize it it might look something like:
“BZZZZZZZZZZZZ. Buzz. Pop….Stop. Turn. Red. Flashing. Frozen. Running. Interrupt. Sky…Dash. Defeat. Death. Victory. BUZZZZZ. Fog. Mist. Incapable. Enable. Anger. Sorrow. Flip. I need to finish project x at work. Why are the dishes….? Buzzz. Leave me alone. Help. Go away. Come closer. What? I didn’t hear you. Wait, I did hear you, my ears have just not yet shared with my brain. Processing. Why does it take so long to hear?”
But that is so short, repeat that over and over with variation a thousand times and one begins to get a picture. It is not just the randomness and the pain, but the consistency and duration of it which are distracting and frustrating.
I enjoy interacting with people – though not over small talk. I hate small talk, small talk makes me want to crawl out of my skin. I want to talk about substance. Or we can talk about just about anything as long as I am doing something else. Let me clean, build, work, and I will talk small.
But mainly I prefer substance. Talk to me about theology, philosophy, social justice, politics, history, science, fiction, the brain, the world, anything which makes my brain come alive.
But then there is this point at which, even if I am enjoying myself I experience the overheating or the inability to continue on. I find this time period to be about 2 hrs., though occasionally it may extend longer (very rarely) to 4 hrs. At this juncture my ability to care dissipates.
This makes it somewhat difficult to maintain friendships. Friends like to spend long periods of time together. I don’t. I can’t. Spending more than a few hours together is painful. I like frequenter, shorter episodes of interaction. Let us simply existence together, with interaction occurring naturally – but at mutually agreed upon times. Let us not be dependent upon each other – but mutually enjoy one another. You cannot need me to be there, instead simply enjoy me there. I need the ability to float and flit about to my own compass, experiencing life without interaction until at some magical moment we both or all feel the need to interact at the same time and then that experience may come and pass, and when it is gone it is gone and there is no use holding onto it though it is likely to reoccur if given enough time.
One way I’ve found to cope with this overheating is to play video games while working on something else…so I read or write while playing a video game. This is frustrating b/c I would rather just work and be more productive – but I may be able to go eight or twelve hours alternating frequently between gaming and working (I do turn-based wargame, which lend themselves to short turns punctuated by waiting as the other player/computer completes their turn) – whereas left to intense occupation with one task it is unlikely I will survive more than 4 hrs. – oftentimes only 2.
I try to keep what I call “experiential” books around me at all times. These are books which do not (usually) significantly increase my knowledge but which allow me to process truths. I read a lot of Max Lucado, I reread Mark Rutland, I read poetry by MacDonald and others – in these works I find experience of truth which settles the brain and calms the heart.
One reason I collect books is so that I have them when the time comes…when I need them. Many are knowledge acquisition but many are experiential. I have more books on prayer – well books of prayers – than most libraries…more books on grace than most churches…I have so many b/c I need them so frequently.
So how to get better?
- First, I do not know that there is a “whole” to which I may achieve in this life. I am “better” – probably “better” than I have ever been, yet I am not “whole.” Yet, the inability to become “whole” does not mean that I don’t yet strive to become “better.”
- At some juncture I’d love to have some SPECT scans done and perhaps some blood tests to evaluate functional anomalies and incorrect levels of various chemicals within my body. Both of these are rather cutting edge diagnoses which are not commonly available. Understanding better the exact combination of misfunctions can be helpful in better reacting against and overcoming these challenges.
- I have to accept my limitations – which I am much better at doing now than I have been in the past. I no longer push myself to be like everyone else in the same way I used to.
- There is a need to increase the margin in my life. Dr. Richard Swenson has written an excellent book of the same name on this topic. I have to recognize that when left with inadequate margin in my life I will first sacrifice relationships and diet.
- I am not sure that I can change this…my felt need for knowledge and solitude is greater than my felt need for relationships or health…and my attempts to bring the latter before the former in my current existence has been futile on a multitude of occasions over a number of years.
- The only real answer I then see is to increase the margin – thereby allowing me to pay proper attention to health and diet b/c there is time around the “other necessities” of knowledge and solitude.
So, what does all that mean? It means a lot of things…but if I boil it down to two things…I think it means.
a. I’m going to try and move to being uni-vocational. Maybe others can be bi-vocational, God bless them, but it isn’t for me.
b. I’m going to buy that pill box I keep talking about until I can build my super-intelligent pill dispenser, b/c I won’t take the supplements I need (much less eat right) if it takes too much time and diverts me from my felt needs of knowledge and solitude.
-  Interestingly, in the past I would feel extremely depressed when I first woke up, this has passed. I think since I have been taking ADD medications…but maybe the timing is coincidental. This depression was overwhelming but I knew if I could get into the shower within ten minutes it would evaporate almost entirely…and so I did…but I realized lately that I do not feel this way anymore. ↩
-  I’m not here suggesting I don’t want help, or that others don’t want help when experiencing such difficulties…rather I am trying to express the experiential feeling one has when offered help by someone who is not presently in a situation of experiential angst. There is a certain resistance which the sufferer must overcome, but there is also a certain humility, patience, and empathy which the “helper” may bring that can ease this process. Further, vulnerability is usually useful – but not surface vulnerability. An individual feels alive when empathized with in a meaningful way. ↩