Category Archives: Brain Hacking

The Equation

Sometimes you get pretty busy, and what’s the first thing to lose out? The daily exercise, being outside (sunlight) for a bit, perhaps the fruit (see the How-To). Sound familiar?

Depending on how you’re going at the time, you may actually get away with it. But it’s a dangerous track to go on… if you happen to get sick or add a bit of stress, there’s trouble. For me personally, I think it works somewhat like an equation, roughly this:

doing ok = ((exercise + daylight + fruit + sleep) >= (stress + illness))

Perhaps someone would care to refine this further?

(I’ve never coded in Lisp but I always use parentheses to keep math clear without implied rules. I know about operator precedence – heck I’ve written little compilers – but being explicit eases code maintenance and reduces bugs)

By the way, we got some press attention this week, see When hackers get the blues. It’s also November again, and that means Movember: the yearly fundraising drive raising awareness for men’s health, this year focusing on depression and prostate cancer. I’ve added it to the links, if you know of other relevant links please let us know!

Organising the House

It has been said that a person’s house tends to be a reflection of their mind… and I think it’s definitely the case that how a house looks/feels affects its occupants. If you have your house pretty much sorted, that is a feel-good factor and something less to potentially worry about.

Basic cleanliness is good of course, but I’m talking more about clutter and really just things that lie about somewhere because they don’t have their own proper spot. The latter may sound a tad anal, but essentially if you store stuff everything has a particular spot to go so by definition that’s how you organise things. Nothing new there. I’m not saying you’ll be labeling each drawer and box, but some people find that handy also. In any case, I think the key factor is storage, since if you don’t have a spot to put something, of course it’s going to end up just “somewhere”. Having storage for stuff makes it easy to not have clutter, so you’re more inclined to maintain it as well.

By the way, I’ve found this works well for kids also. Little smurfs at around age 2 generally love to be very organised, everything needs to have a spot and so on. If you have sufficient (and suitable) storage space for their toys, having them clean up their stuff becomes really easy and natural. In my house my daughter actually now has the master bedroom, simply because it has the most daylight and floor space of all the bedrooms. I don’t need daylight in my bedroom, so everybody is happy and better organised (I don’t mean to start a revolution in other households, you don’t have to tell yours kids about this ;-).

In Australia there’s a nice chain of stores called “Storage Space” which I sometimes visit for ideas. I tend to not buy much there since it’s quite costly. My personal favourite place for ideas about storage tricks is IKEA. For instance, I’ve always found shelves sucky for clothes, but it’s pretty easy to build something with storage trays that can be pulled out, as well as smart hanging options (for instance for pants).

In closing, a short story that was told to me at back in January: a group of friends got together (some travelling interstate) to help a friend clean up their house, sort things. Now that’s a very tricky thing, not everybody would appreciate such “interference”; but I understand they got it right and it really helped that person well beyond just having their house organised. I hope they’ll pop on here some time and tell the full story directly, as I think it’s a great example of how you can, very practically, help someone get back on track. I also think it’s a brilliant example of true friendship.

Tea; Earl Grey; Hot

I drank Earl Grey tea long before Picard ordered it from his replicator on Star Trek. That’s not quite what this story is about, but it is about tea, and how it caused me some major trouble.

Only a few years ago I worked out that I don’t deal well with caffeine. It’s fine at the time, but it causes a serious dip in how I feel the next morning. It’s nasty and not resolved by just ingesting more caffeine. You get the idea. I didn’t drink regular coffee anyway but I cut out mocha (milk based coffee/chocolate blend) and the occasional coca cola (travel, parties, conferences). Tea didn’t appear to cause any hassles, although I am aware that technically a cup of tea can have more caffeine than coffee. Problem solved, until a few weeks ago.

With the cold weather (ok so it’s winter in Australia right now) I’ve been having lots of nice warm tea while I work. For a while it was home-mixed chai which used naturally caffeine-low Daintree tee. It ran out, and because creating a new mix means quite a bit of work (including finely chopping and drying ginger) I temporarily shifted to Earl Grey tea, figuring it’d be ok anyway. Well, I was wrong. I was in a bad way for a number of weeks, until I thought of this angle only a few days ago and of course took immediate action. Much better already!

As we grow (older 😉 we all work out “manuals” for ourselves, but every once in a while a new pattern comes up that doesn’t quite fit what you’ve learnt to recognise and deal with automatically. We live and learn…

Do as I Do

One of the attributes of intelligence we ascribe to ourselves is the ability to work out what other people might do.  The next stage in that process, one might say, is to anticipate their needs and desires.  If you know that someone gets very angry when you poke them with a sharp stick, then you tend to avoid that.

In modern life we anticipate other people’s thoughts and emotional reactions in many situations, but this is a guessing game.  It also hurts when our well-meant actions are seen as having some malicious meaning we never intended them to have, and this can happen when the’re’s an ‘impedance’ failure between what we mean and how we’re interpreted.

The other part of the problem is that people rarely explain what they most want.  Most of the reasons boil down to the fact we feel uncomfortable telling someone else how they should act.  We most commonly communicate how we want to be treated by treating someone else that way.  A simple example: some people make light of mistakes because they wish to pass off the mistake as not worth worrying about, but to others this laughter can be interpreted as laughing at the person who made the mistake.  Unfortunately, hilarity and anger ensue.

The key here is that mismatch between what we expect and what the other person gives, and it can be very subtle.  We might completely overlook someone holding back on a comment (because they feel a comment is too critical at that time) and comment ourselves, thus annoying the other person.  There’s no sure-fire way to fix this problem instantly, but the most important thing we can do is to recognise those situations.  Taking a step back and apologising for treating the other person the wrong way is a good way to start things back on track.

In this sense, the Golden Rule can be reworded as “do unto others as they want to be done by, as expressed in how they do unto you”.  Doesn’t sound as attractive but it’s probably closer to the mark.

Don’t hate the helper

We’re intelligent people.  We like to be logical, precise, controlled and just.  But when the black dog is behind us, or someone’s just said something that really makes us feel bad, it can be very peculiar to see all that fly out the window and find these strange emotions churning in their place.  When I’m badly hurt by something, I’m often very silent, as my mind races to find the correct answer, the precise justification for my feelings or the truly encompassing start to my exposition.

In those situations, you might have someone wanting to help you.  They might even be the person that said whatever it was that put you down.  They might even not sound like they’re helping at all with their questions or explanations.  But often it is this very person who does care the most for you.  And here you can apply that intelligent, logical brain for a minute to help you.

The first thing I try to do is to at least apologise for being upset.  Sure, it may be a small thing, but sometimes the other person doesn’t even know that anything might be wrong.  Apologise if you’ve snapped at them, or done something ill-mannered.  We can agree that even if you feel like they’re the one who has hurt you and you dearly want an apology, that you shouldn’t be lashing out or being nasty.

Which leads me to the second thing I try to do: precisely differentiate between how they’re trying to help (even if it’s not actually helping you) and whatever has hurt you.  You may realise that, even though they’re being a klutz – and I know I’ve been really stupid when it’s come to trying to comfort someone else when they’re feeling down – they at least care for you.  It’s not much, but we can all work on that.

Most importantly, we have to try to not be sarcastic, rude, difficult, or antagonistic while we’re dealing with our problems.  It might feel that the effort will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, but believe me it’s nothing compared to what gets broken if you deliberately set out to hurt the person who’s trying to help you. 🙂

A single word

Sometimes, even a single sentence or thought can make us feel depressed.  Suddenly we’re reminded of some black incident in our past, and it can seem like we’re going through the same awful process another time around.  Even a totally inoccuous thing can set us off at times; sometimes even the realisation that we feel that way about something can get us back into the rut again.

I find one way to deal with that is to try and separate the trigger from the memories.  There’s always some difference between this time and last time, even if it’s just that we’re older and wiser and remember the pain from before.  I try to think about the difference between the two events and focus on why it might be different this time.  That recently helped me realise that even though my partner said something that made me depressed, that she wasn’t doing it to depress me.  I still felt depressed, but now it was my own feelings that I was dealing with rather than feeling like someone else was weighing me down.  Then I could reflect that in fact she meant to try and encourage and support me, even though she might have approached it the wrong way just then.

By seeing the differences between what had gone before and what was happening now, I could reorient my thinking slightly so I didn’t have to go down the same path.

Getting to sleep

A friend taught me a very useful trick to use when you really want to get to sleep but your brain can’t stop bouncing around randomly.  Start counting and visualise each number, tracing it out in your visual space.  Replace each number with the word ‘sleep’ before going on to the next.  Or imagine it like a count-down strip in an old film reel, with the number 1 being surrounded by a clock face sweeping out the time to the next number.  Slow that time down between numbers.  Or write the words out in your head.  Or count in a foreign language, again tracing the words out in your head.  Try binary or trinary.

The key detail here is to not just think of the number but to visually map it out in your visual space, so it involves more of your brain to trace each number.  If you also involve a picture or a word that you have to put between each iteration, it forces your brain to concentrate on one thing.  And that’s really the key to that ‘brain pinball’ feeling – stopping every bit of your brain firing randomly.

The other technique I’ve used is to count up in series.  Powers of two or three, the Fibonacci series – there are plenty of other arithmetic (and a few simple geometric) progressions that you can use to focus your mind.  Now that I can count up to 2^24 from memory it becomes more of a challenge, but it’s a good way of concentrating to stop your thoughts randomly running all over the place.