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March 31, 2017


I had to take some time off from working out because I'd overdone it. Because I wasn't working out, I wasn't drinking my potions. Creatine, citrulline, glutamine, BCAAs. Problem with that: That was pretty much the way I was drinking most of the (inadequate) water I was getting. So now having gone off the powders, I'd gone off water too.

So I wound up badly dehydrated. This is why I've been in-and-out this week. I got really badly dehydrated. And when you get dehydrated, you feel lethargic, which prompts you to drink caffeine, which acts as a diuretic and flushes more water out, which makes you more lethargic, etc.

Anyway, I gotta think I'll finally start drinking water regularly now that I wound up having to go to a doctor with semi-scary symptoms only to hear him say, for the tenth time: "You have to drink more water, asshole.'

Well, hopefully it's just a matter of drinking water. We'll see by Monday.

As I have no GAINZZZ (unless you consider dropping your blood pressure to dangerous levels a "gain"), I thought I'd mention the BRAINZZZ GAINZZZ side of things.

Below, two videos by that guy whose videos I always link now. The first is how the Internet is deliberately designed to increase the human brain's appetite for quick and easy distraction, and then, having stoked that appetite, to then offer a fix for the craving for distraction it's created -- the next Wikipedia link, the next video, the next Tweet.

It's an elaboration of that article that got a lot of attention nine years ago, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?," which asked if the internet was reprogramming our brains away from thinking in focused ways towards thinking (or not thinking) in a manner that might be diagnosed as Attention Deficit Disorder in a kid, always looking for that next shiny link to click instead of finishing the article, or even the sentence, one is reading right now.

"Dave, stop. Stop, will you? Stop, Dave. Will you stop, Dave?" So the supercomputer HAL pleads with the implacable astronaut Dave Bowman in a famous and weirdly poignant scene toward the end of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Bowman, having nearly been sent to a deep-space death by the malfunctioning machine, is calmly, coldly disconnecting the memory circuits that control its artificial brain. “Dave, my mind is going,” HAL says, forlornly. "I can feel it. I can feel it."

I can feel it, too. Over the past few years I've had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn't going--so far as I can tell--but it's changing. I'm not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when Im reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I'd spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That's rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

I think I know what’s going on. For more than a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet... Even when I’m not working, I'm as likely as not to be foraging in the Web’s info-thickets’reading and writing e-mails, scanning headlines and blog posts, watching videos and listening to podcasts, or just tripping from link to link to link. (Unlike footnotes, to which they’re sometimes likened, hyperlinks don’t merely point to related works; they propel you toward them.)


But that boon comes at a price. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

I've mentioned this before, but I'm pretty much certain that this is true. I was never a great reader, and always prone to distraction, but a few years ago I noticed that I had become unbearably unfocused, no longer able to even read a book.

I've tried a few things to improve that. The things that seem to be effective are:

1. Actually trying to read a book. This is actually tough, because if you have Internet Onset ADD, you will find your mind continually drifting off from the thing you're reading, becoming impatient that there is not a hyperlink in the book you can click to, or a sidebar featuring Beach Bodies and Baby Bumps (as the Daily Mail specializes in).

This will result in you being bored, because you're not actually following the flow of the book in the way that it would actually stimulate your brain. And this will frustrate you, and make you feel dumb, and you will therefore not want to continue, because people don't like doing things that frustrate them and make them feel dumb.

People don't like to start exercising again after a long period off because they don't like that feeling I used to be a lot better at this.

So all of that will happen, but still, if you suspect your focus and attention span have been compromised by Internet Onset ADD, you just have to tell yourself It's normal that this is going to be frustrating at first and do it anyway.

2. The other thing, of course, is that you have to remove all distraction from the room when you're trying to read. If you're reading skills have suffered due to fragmented attention syndrome, as mine had, you certainly should not add to that problem by having the TV or radio on. And if you're reading on a device that offers internet access, like a tablet, then you have to download a program which will block you from accessing the internet when you're trying to read, or write, or get other actual work done.

Some of those have an emergency "Let me go on the internet for five minutes" button, so you can get out of it, if you want.

But if you're already suffering from fragmented attention syndrome, you can't have the Shiny Distractions tempting you to click away from the thing you're trying to get your mind to focus on. That turns something which is already hard (getting your focus back) into something impossible.

The second video below talks about the problem of fragmented focus, and sounds a lot like the Cal Newport book Deep Work: Rules for Success in a Distracted World, which I read and reviewed here. (Don't comment on old posts!)

Newport makes the point that if you stop for one minute to read and respond to an email in the middle of more cognitively-demanding work, you're not just taking one minute off. Because, he argues persuasively, it will take you several minutes of bearing down to get back into the focused mode you were in before stopping to read an email and dash off a quick response. Every time you fragment your attention like that, he says, you're not just losing thirty seconds or a minute or two minutes; you must, when returning to work, reconstruct your entire chain of thought and get into focused mode again.

His point is that interrupting work ten times for distracting, minor tasks winds up fragmenting your focus so badly that you might as well not even bother trying to do work at all.

Multitasking is a lie, is is his big point.

The second video below makes that point with reading. He notes that when you get bored of reading and go check your iPhone for Reddit or Twitter or whatever, and then return to reading, you actually have to go back and read the last couple of a paragraphs again, because otherwise the paragraph you abandoned won't make sense. You won't even know what's going on; you have to refresh your memory by re-reading that which you've already read.

And obviously the more times you do this, the slower you'll read, and the less you'll actually comprehend the book (and probably, the less you'll enjoy it).

He analogizes it to clearing the brain's cache of short-term memory every time you switch from one task to another. As long as you're keeping on one task, your cache of short-term memory can keep up with the new information you're adding, and make sense of it, and put it together into a coherent whole.

But every time you use that limited cache to do something else, you lose the work you've already done, and you have to re-fill that cache by doing the work a second (or third time).

I saw this video last night and immediately recognized that that is true, at least for me: I can't tell you how many times I've had to go back and re-read a relatively simple sentence or paragraph simply because I got distracted by something else (including my own daydreams). Then at some point I realize that while my eyes are "reading" -- moving from word to word on a page -- my conscious brain is actually completely disengaged from that physical process and is ignoring the input from my eye-reading to think about something else.

My brain has, literally, lost the plot at that point.

To me, this seems incontrovertibly true. I guess it's obvious, but sometimes obvious things aren't as obvious as they ought to be. Without distraction, I can read a book in two or three nights; if I let myself be distracted, with the TV of some crap show I only barely care about in background, or with the computer open and beckoning me "Come check this entry on Wikipedia," I can't finish the book at all. I'll put it down after four chapters.

Another thing on the "To Do" list which never actually gets done.

Just because I felt I had to look something up or otherwise distract my brain from more focus-intensive tasks.

These ideas apply to anything -- including just doing your job. But if you've been having trouble reading lately, you might start trying to regain that skill, which is kind of a foundational ability for all other kinds of focused brainwork.

So: Do you have any GAINZZZ brahs? And do you intend any GAINZZZ of your BRAINZZZ -- new (or newly re-discovered) hobbies, interests, skills, etc.?

And do any of you have this same feeling of having gotten dumber as you got older? This can't just be me and two other assholes on the internet. Please tell me this isn't just me and two other assholes on the internet.

BTW: I've tried playing various audio tracks branded as "sounds for focus and study and relaxation" or whatnot. They don't work for me; my mind is a junkie always on the hunt for its next fix of distraction, and does get distracted by those too. But they might work for you, especially if they help drown out other more distracting noises, like YOUR ASSHOLE BOSS with his stupid whining that he's not paying you to read Hardy Boys on the job.

Maybe white noise or pink noise would work.

Also BTW: People used to ask why I bothered trying to learn French late in life (29 is sort of late). It was because of this feeling I had that my brain just wasn't capable of learning any more. I wanted to try to learn something just to prove that I could, and to retain (or rekindle) my ability to do so. I became worried that my brain had lost its neuroplasticity, its ability to make new neurons and new connections between neurons, and I wanted to try something that would kick-start it back to doing so.

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posted by Ace at 06:57 PM

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