Category Archives: Brain Hacking

Patching your own Brain

This video is from the Open Source Developers’ Conference in Canberra, November 2011. The term patching is used in the hacker/programmer sense: you find a bug, figure out what’s going on, and fix (aka patch) it.

Apart from my lightning talks over the last three years, this is probably the first specific “bluehackers related talk”. For this reason I was actually a bit nervous beforehand, but it worked out very well. Those present found it fun and educational, with plenty of questions and chats triggered later – which is excellent. Feel free to talk more here in the comment thread!

Refs:

  • Prof Martin Seligman, numerous books and papers in the space of cognitive psychology (and connections to depression) incl. “Learned Optimism” and “The Optimistic Child”.
  • The OpenOffice ODS and Excel XLS files referenced in the talk will remain online. Note that the talleys have to be adjusted from the explanations in the Learned Optimism book, in part because I use used fewer questions (42 rather than 48) and also most questions were mine rather than the originals. Still, they provide a rough indication, which was the intent.

Note: Yes, the video does show a prototype game board at the end. It was an unexpected spin-off during the talk preparation months ago, and I’ll post on that separately!

such as hats
xhamster A Guide To Buying Sexy Men

with two more movies yet to come
xhamsterIndian Fashion Salwar Kameez and Kurtis

Sleep Cycles

Jenson Taylor made an insightful post on Google+, I’m reproducing it here as its topic -sleep- is important and has already come up several times. From my own experience, the observations hold quite true.

 

Sleep Cycles by Jenson TaylorStudies show that the length of sleep is not what causes us to be refreshed upon waking. The key factor is the number of complete sleep cycles we enjoy. Each sleep cycle contains five distinct phases, which exhibit different brain- wave patterns.

For our purposes, it suffices to say that one sleep cycle lasts an average of 90 minutes: 65 minutes of normal, or non-REM (rapid eye movement), sleep; 20 minutes of REM sleep (in which we dream); and a final 5 minutes of non-REM sleep. The REM sleep phases are shorter during earlier cycles (less than 20 minutes) and longer during later ones (more than 20 minutes).

If we were to sleep completely naturally, with no alarm clocks or other sleep disturbances, we would wake up, on the average, after a multiple of 90 minutes–for example, after 4 1/2 hours, 6 hours, 7 1/2 hours, or 9 hours, but not after 7 or 8 hours, which are not multiples of 90 minutes.

In the period between cycles we are not actually sleeping: it is a sort of twilight zone from which, if we are not disturbed (by light, cold, a full bladder, noise), we move into another 90-minute cycle.

A person who sleeps only four cycles (6 hours) will feel more rested than someone who has slept for 8 to 10 hours but who has not been allowed to complete any one cycle because of being awakened before it was completed.

More Hints for the Sleepless Mind

First: Warm milk before bedtime does help you get to sleep, cold milk does not. Warming up milk activates the tryptophan that’s naturally present. Good.

I’m not a fan of either medication or dietary supplements, but obviously sometimes they can help you get back (and/or stay) on track – less to worry about.

From a pharmacist friend I’ve learnt that Calcium+Magnesium can assist with sorting out sleep issues, as it’s involved with relaxing your muscles, as well as enabling you to not waking up too early (the latter is something I’ve had problems with and it’s clearly very difficult to “work on that”).

Another acquired wisdom, not quite related but relevant in context, is for men to avoid taking extra Vitamin A. Chances are you have enough already, and more may cause you nasty headaches. Problem is, many multi-vitamins contain it so pick one that doesn’t, and I’ve noticed some milk is fortified with it (usually shown on label so easy to identify) – again pick one that hasn’t.

Erratic sleep can indicate later mental illness

Bed sharing ‘bad for your health’ ?

Sharing a bed with someone could temporarily reduce your brain power – at least if you are a man

A Day Inside my Head

(preamble: generally I think about posts here for a while and so it is with this one – however, it turned out more topical for me now and thus this post is pretty much “real time”. Just so you know…)

Good morning, and welcome to this tour of my head today. Feel free to ask any questions. It’s a bit of a mess right now, I am aware (I try not to fuss too much over that as it’d just be an added stress – just step over).

Jittery? Ehm yes that too – the body that’s attached to this head definitely is jittery this morning as it has been for some days; it’s had (give or take) about 0 hours of sleep last night and that takes its toll. Some nights are better than others.

Any medication that might help? Yep on it, since last week and for the first time in about four years. Went back to the doctor because I don’t regard crying in a corner as not a normal way of spending even part of a day. Cause? Dunno, there are triggers but other than that it just appears to be chemical imbalance (SSRI). Now it might take up to a few weeks (or even months if the dose needs to be tweaked) to hopefully settle things again.

Oops mind those thoughts whizzing past – you’re quite right most of them you’ve seen before recently and in a bit they’ll come around again. Persistent buggers they are, they’ve been thought about and/or dealt with, yet they keep popping back up, bloody useless really. It’ll be great when that just goes away – yep the meds should help with that. The thoughts themselves are of the harmless variety, no fear there. I just prefer to have new thoughts rather than recycling old used ones, you know?

So where were we… ahyes, sleeplessness. Of course those pesky thoughts don’t help but relaxation exercises assist; and in part it can be a temporary side effect of the meds, difficult to tell really with so many factors. I do get up every morning, have breakfast or go for morning walk with an apple to get daylight and exercise as well and try not to have naps during the day – yep all the right things, it’s really good to have those habits mostly in place while things are ok then it’s so much easier to keep them up.

So how do I feel, am I ok? Ehm, obviously not ok really, and how I feel differs per hour (pretty irregular waveform, for the geeks). Can I cope with life, daughter, the world outside and run my business? Luckily, yes. With running my own business, having others work for/with me and not doing emergency type stuff at all, that’s flexible enough to remain manageable. When I started the business four years ago some people were very concerned about the timing (and I’m not disagreeing) but it’s worked out well and reaping its benefits now.

I can joke and laugh and enjoy myself, as I realise it’s not me but just a malfunctioning part of me. I refuse to let that take over. I’m decent company (and that’s not just my own opinion). I do have some bad moments, say akin to a nasty stomach cramp (general feeling of dread), and those are more frequent right now than when things were going ok. It used to just be there every once in a while which was managable, it’s more annoying in its current state; hope that subsides soon. Last time I lost a lot of weight in a very short time, this time it seems stable and as I mentioned a light breakfast is generally doable and other meals are mostly fine.

Judgement? Ah, that’s a bit tricky. It’s not quite right and I’ve experienced examples of this over recent months before I figured out what was going on, so I need to be careful. Ability to observe yourself and often recognise cannot always prevent trouble, because clearly some of the logic applied is affected by the problem and thus currently borked. Self-awareness is good but not a complete solution here. Technical matters = usually ok, personal matters = potentially tricky, emotional matters = quagmire. Being tired I obviously need to take care to not grump or snap, not fair to take things out on other people and it doesn’t help anyone. The immediate nasty symptoms required action. Now that that’s happening… Overall, I’m functional. Of course, more sleep would be excellent!

I mentioned triggers earlier. The other day while on my morning walk I had quite a reaction to seeing a couple walk hand in hand, which is usually just regard as cute. Surprising, but there’s context. First of all and just to be clear, this is not the only type of trigger observed. Second, I know that close companionship has a very stabilising effect on my state and since I’m not currently in a relationship I can’t benefit from that. Bummer. I’m telling this because it may help others. If you have a partner (who understands), you’re likely to be in much better shape. Obviously, initiating a new relationship would be messy to say the least (not impossible though, if you’re both well aware of what’s going on), and even when already/just dating someone (which I am) tossing this stuff into the mix is a rather serious burden. That said, if you want to continue seeing the person you’re going to have to talk about it, as it’s not an optional part of who you are and they need to understand why you are and behave/react the way you do and might be a tad volatile. Oh and if you’re with someone who “doesn’t believe in it” (depression, that is) – seriously get out right now as they’re toxic to you and you’re better off without them.

When I did the little talk 3 years ago that ended up starting BlueHackers, I’d dealt with my own troubles – it was just good therapy for me and potentially useful for others to speak out, make things more open and ensure people didn’t feel alone. I didn’t think I’d find myself “back here” – still, I know I’m not alone!

It’s very annoying when part of your head doesn’t “behave” the way you want and is affecting your life for some period of time. I am able to just disregard the occasional “what am I doing this for” as I know those thoughts/doubts only pop up when that part misbehaves and it’ll disappear when things settle. That’s a relief (and probably comforting to you, the reader, too 😉 but still a nuisance in the mean time.

I’m now using these scribbles here as therapy. I don’t need pity (does anyone?) but empathy is good. I don’t want to have to pretend that everything is alright, because it bloody clearly isn’t and it costs a lot of energy which I need for getting better. I am open with the people around me too, for the same reasons: nice to still get invitations for dinner and doing stuff together with friends even when I’m somehow exuding this odd vibe that might otherwise scare people away.

Thanks for visiting – and now, out of my head. It’s mess enough without so many extra visitors 😉

Brainy info on smarts and depression

From 50 Incredibly Weird Facts About the Human Body an interesting tidbit about the brain:

A higher I.Q. equals more dreams: The smarter you are, the more you dream. A high I.Q. can also fight mental illness. Some people even believe they are smarter in their dreams than when they are awake.

Do check out the links referenced there, it’s at least interesting reading. What do you think of it?

The bit I’m particularly sceptical about is how it relates to IQ. IQ has a cultural bias due to the way it’s designed, but funnily enough people in Eastern Asia actually score higher than West Europeans for whom the test was designed (by a Frenchman, originally). Anyway, depending on how you ask about people’s dreams and the way they are able to express that, you can easily enforce a similar bias and thus come to the above conclusion without actually having a scientific basis for it. In other words, the test may have been utterly borked. Tricky stuff.

Concentration and Focus

You might recognise this… reduced concentration (getting in to a task and sticking with it) and ability to focus (example would be when interacting with people)

I’m not certain whether the original cause is actually related to depression, and/or the fact that I’ve been “online” for 25 years… with more recent technology it’s pretty easy to make the point that through the way we work it, it can easily mess with our ability to focus. We tend to work on an “interrupt” basis, that is we start some task but at any point a number of things can pop up (sometimes literally), ring, go blip or otherwise draw our attention. I believe this is messy and while I don’t want to ditch my online presence I’m thinking about ways to remedy this. I think it’s possible, I just need to act less immediate – basically turn off the blips. It’s often tempting and an excellent procrastination tool, but it’s not good.

With regard to focus, I’ve made the observation that I can’t keep looking at a person I am talking with, specifically while in listening-mode. I hear and take in what they’re saying, but I find myself frequently looking at things nearby before refocussing (head doesn’t move) – that’s in part apparently a thing that visual-spatial people do (school kid looking out the window instead of at teacher may actually be paying really close attention), but I’ve found that it has one very serious problem: you miss the bodylanguage. And that’s apart from the conversation partner possibly getting upset with your apparent lack of attention for them. Whatever the cause(s), I’d like to see if I can improve my focus.

I’ve been looking in to exercises that can help with these things, and most are fairly simple and straightforward but utterly boring things: stuff like focusing on an idea (mentally) or point/item (physically) for a set period of time, timing the duration of the focus you can maintain, refocussing your mind on the topic, and thus training your brain to get better at it. It’s valid, but not much direct fun and that leads to neglect rather than commitment 😉

Today I found another option: juggling. I was at a kiddie medieval festival with my daughter, and one of her things for the day was “jester school” and parents/carers were allowed to partake. We did diabolo and basic juggling. I’ve always wanted to learn juggling but never had a live tutor for it. I think the “task” of juggling covers all the skills that need to be trained (concentration, focus) and it’s fun! Plus, if you get better at the skill, the juggling improves so there’s a very direct external feedback mechanism that can even be shown off to others in an entertaining way… all win! 😉

See this ABC Australia video for some basic hints on juggling. What she doesn’t tell there is that the arm action should keep your elbows still, and the point your eyes should focus on is about in front of your forehead, that’s where the crossover balls get aimed. Google for other tutorials (text/diagram pages might help in addition to videos). At this stage I can’t yet say I can juggle, but even the basic steps are good exercises so I’m going to stick with it and see where it leads!

I’m very interested to hear your thoughts on all of this: jugging as an exercise for other stuff, causes for focus/concentration problems, etc. Everybody is different, and these things tend to not get talked about but it’s stuff many of us struggle with in some way so it’s really important. Thanks!

On growing up as an alien robot among humans

Since tomorrow there’s an awareness campaign about autism spectrum disorders running, it seems an appropriate time to write about my own experiences with ASD.

As a young child, I didn’t really notice much that I was different. I didn’t hang out with other girls much – they were given to playing games like ‘house’ and whatever that I didn’t understand, whereas the boys played hopscotch and tag and hide and seek, which had rules. I played by myself a lot, too, and read books in the library. Looking back, for a child, I was pretty self-directed.

By the time I was around 8, it was becoming increasingly obvious that whatever I was, it wasn’t normal. My reading level had reached an adult level the previous year, although obviously some concepts had no real meaning for me. My language development reflected the fact that I read far more than I spoke – I pronounced words oddly, and my word usage was often very formal and structured. I didn’t really have normal friendships – I was already being fairly heavily bullied within my own grade, learning early the lesson that people are cruel and untrustworthy, especially children. I looked to adults and older children for companionship. My choice of reading materials varied between science fiction (Isaac Asmiov), fantasy (Tolkien – the Silmarillion was my favourite book), the encycolpedia britannica, and dictionaries. I also liked reading about dinosaurs, especially palentological taxonomies, and physics.  Looking at the wikipedia article on characteristics of Aspergers – I ticked all the boxes to a greater or lesser extent. I was feeling increasingly out-of-place at school.  Add increasing issues at home due to financial stresses in the family, and I began the long fall into depression and anxiety that have since characterised my life to some extent.

The first formal diagnosis was around age 11. High functioning autism, of the particular variety that would probably, today, be called Asperger’s syndrome. This was around 1992 – Hans Asperger’s definitive work wasn’t really accepted as mainstream until about two years later, and certainly didn’t hit the paediatric and psychological professions on Australian shores until perhaps 1998 or thereabouts. The doctor’s recommendations were to get a cat, encourage social interaction, and don’t let me be by myself too much. As we now know, that last one is a recipe for madness. My parents were doing what they thought was right for me – it was not their fault that best practices at the time were very, very bad for me.

I retreated from the world. I would speak if spoken to. I went to classes. Although I kept up my non fiction reading (graduating to simple chemistry, quantum mechanics, and black hole cosmology), my choices also increasingly became escapist – more fantasy fiction, much, much more. I would hide in the book cases in the library during school lunchtimes. At least, until I discovered computers – then I hid in the computer labs instead, getting there when they opened in the morning, and only leaving when I had to. I was constantly buffeted by the consequences of my lack of understanding. Imagine, if you will, a world where the only communication was the spoken word, and that word had all the emotional emphasis of plain text. Where allegory and metaphor were entirely abstract concepts with no basis in reality. Where words meant only their literal meanings to me, which had the effect of making the English spoken by everyone else a foreign language. I had technical proficiency in this language, but I couldn’t make myself understood, neither could I understand the messages that were being given to me. It was much later that I gained this understanding of what was going on – at the time, I literally couldn’t grasp the concept of what was going on. A bit like asking a blind person what colour is like, I imagine.

At age 13, I first became suicidal. I was intensely lonely, as well. There was quite literally no-one in the world who I could talk to – the school counsellor seemed to think that I didn’t have any friends because I didn’t make an effort. I was rejected by every social group except the real weirdos, and the international students. I did well enough academically, but the only real friends I thought I had were my teachers, and by the end of high school, one or two of my peers, who had similarly troubled states of mind. The only thing that kept me alive during those years was the fact of my brother’s illness – I knew for a fact what happened when people around him were very sick or died, he ended up in ICU with a near-death experience. I didn’t want to be responsible for his death as well as mine, so I didn’t try. I also convinced myself that I was a bad person and didn’t deserve such an easy way out. I must be bad, because people didn’t talk to me, and shunned me, and that’s what you do to bad people. In such a state, I graduated high school. I estimate my social skills were, at this time, at the level of most 4 to 5 year olds.

Over that summer between high school and first year university, I was finally told what was wrong with me – what the diagnosis I had received many years ago was. Not being told ‘until I was old enough’ was also a recommendation from the doctor. It was like a nuclear warhead going off in my skull. The first thing I did was read everything I could lay my hands on that had the slightest relevance to Autism, and it was a revelation and a relief. This is what I had been missing all those years. This is what I lacked – and, given sufficient effort, what I could surely develop. The next few months, using the internet, some very sympathetic and patient friends, and a great deal of energy, I slowly observed and learnt to mimic normal social behaviours. The process involved many discussions on why exactly people acted how they did – what prompted a particular behaviour, what thought, what emotion, what associations. I was – and still am, at times – incredibly distressed by the lack of literal meanings in human interactions, by the lack of straightforward relationships between thought and action, and by the sheer inconsistency from person to person. I would estimate that I spent upwards of 40 hours a week focussing on this, and working to improve my imitation of humanity. I have often described it as developing a giant look up table in my head of ‘behaviour -> response’, and that’s a pretty accurate description of how it feels.

It’s twelve years later, and I’m now 29. Even to the professional eye, I generally no longer present as having an autism spectrum disorder. It is perhaps ironic that it is the obsessive focus on minutiae that is a characteristic of the disorder that has allowed me to develop these skills. It has, to a large extent, become reflex to act this way. However, there is still large swathes of social programming that I have simply missed out on, and don’t see value in adopting. I’m more comfortable in being slightly sideways from most of humanity, and on most days, can see myself as being human. I believe I have established solid relationships with other people, and that most of the time, I’m not too difficult to be around, or too opaque. Still, I’m always trying to improve.

(original at Elspeth’s personal blog, reposted with permission)

CEO’s disease – manic depression and entrepreneurship

In an article that dates back to the 1990’s the link was made between CEO’s, particularly CEO’s in emerging industries and technologies and manic depression. [1]  You would be surprised how many very successful CEO’s battle with this every day.  From my own father, an entrepreneur of the 1980’s and 1990’s, who has now fallen out of the game after a business failure, to my peers in Business SA’s Young Entrepreneurship Scheme that I participated in last year.  The evidence that this link exists seems to be constantly re-affirmed in my daily experiences.

Even this last week, I was exposed to the idea again, not through my work as a consultant but, instead though the amazing TED and TEDx presentations that I have taken to watching in my downtime.  Maybe this one that discusses manic depression in relation to ADHD, childhood experiences and entrepreneurship may interest you? [2]  Grab a refreshment and make yourself 22 minutes to enjoy this segment.

[1] Elsberry, Richard B. (1998) “”Bipolar disorder”: Why are they calling it the “CEO’s disease”?” FindArticles.com. Accessed: 19 Jun, 2010. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3726/is_199802/ai_n8798710/

[2] Herold, Cameron (2010) “Raising Kids to be Entrepreneurs” YouTube.com http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dCar_sFfEf4&feature=player_embedded