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Essays On Intelligence

The truth about burnout

It was a bright sunny day. Sitting at my birch wood table overlooking the back yard, I could the see the light streaming in to the kitchen. I remember the time of day, it was just about 11am, as I sat coding on my laptop.

I felt a sense of urgency to push code.

But a cloud began to form in my mind as I strained to make sense of the screen. It wasn’t that it was complicated. I had experienced small moments like this numerous times before. Usually it followed long stretches of coding, often many days in a row. So assuming I needed to rest my mind for a minute I looked away to give myself a few seconds of rest. Looking back at the code the fog returned. Again I took a break. I remember waiting exactly 5 minutes. That should be plenty of time. But the fog became worse. Within minutes it was like I was looking at greek. I couldn’t make sense of it.

That was 7 years ago. And I’m pleased to say I’ve been symptom free for about 6 weeks.

If you’ve faced this type of scenario I’m happy to say that it’s completely possible to recover from burnout. Commonly referred to as Brain Fog.

There isn’t a lot of information available on burnout. When I first experienced it I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t know why I was experiencing it. In fact I felt ashamed that I was unable to perform at my usual pace and kept it secret from my business partners and colleagues. I was embarrassed, valued performance, and afraid.

I’ve since learned that burnout comes from Hyperfocus disorder. Hyperfocus is an intense form of mental concentration [1]. In my case I didn’t have ADHD, or any of the other conditions sometimes associated with hyperfocus, I simply had little problem focusing while programming. I would get into the zone even in loud, disruptive, and emotionally charged environments. I was possibly a workaholic, a habit thankfully broken because of the symptoms of burnout. Not wanting to miss the NFL Super Bowl I would sit writing our application on my computer while cheering for my team of the match. I struggled to put my tasks aside.

The brain needs rest. It’s an organ, no different to the heart or lungs. It needs time to recover from strenuous use. Something I didn’t know or understand.

Symptoms that I experienced from burnout included:

  • Difficulty with memory recall. Any new information that wasn’t being used in the moment was almost immediately forgotten. While doable, this made project management challenging.
  • Nausea when eating. At one point I’d eat a bite, wait until the feeling of nausea would pass, before choosing to eat another bite.
  • Fogginess. This one is hard to explain, the ability to see things, but difficulty in making sense of what you are seeing. My eyes worked fine, but symbols and strings of commands weren’t instantly recognizable.
  • Logical arguments became extremely strenuous. I studied philosophy at UBCO, it was effortless to string arguments together. In debate one would often think of 4 or 5 arguments simultaneously. After burnout it became difficult to think beyond a single argument.
  • Hard to perform complex short-term recall. Similar to the above symptom, programming often requires holding a few thoughts simultaneously. One assembles the functions of the code in their mind prior to writing it. Then while writing code you may need to know how a module or controller works that you are referencing, remember all that occurred in the program prior to the code you are writing, and think of the possible scenarios that could occur to ensure you write bug free code. It became very tiresome to perform even the simplest of tasks.
  • Strategic debate was challenging.
  • Mood changes – this was subtle but I definitely noticed that some days I had to be very intentional with how I communicated with others. After mentally involved tasks I would become more abrupt and critical.
  • Difficulty recalling words and thoughts. I knew I had a word or thought in my memory, but unable to access it in moments of conversations.
  • Difficulty articulating thoughts. This was likely the most frustrating of all the symptoms. While I could hide the other ones behind a computer screen, as the owner of my company I needed to be able to communicate my thoughts around strategy. Unable to string together many arguments at once, it wasn’t an easy task and I left many meetings feeling frustrated.
  • Simple tasks like answering emails, writing posts, or maintaining support became challenging – even draining.

Extended periods of acute awareness and hyperfocus result in long term elevated levels of dopamine and norepinephrine. Dopamine is released by the hypothalamus in the brain. It is provides you with the motivation, drive and focus involved with attention. Think of it like your “motivation” hormone. Norepinephrine (noardrenaline) is a neurotransmitter found in the brain which has very similar in structure to the hormone epinephrine (adrenaline). It is a chemical involves in wakefulness, memory, alertness and generally readying the brain, and therefore the body, for action when it is being challenged or threatened.

Another chemical released during concentration is acetylcholine (ACh). ACh, acting through muscarinic and nicotinic receptors, it enhances attentional focus by modulating neural activity across sensory, prefrontal, parietal regions of your brain. ACh helps you make sense of what you’re focusing on. “In sensory regions, such as your visual cortex which is activated when you are focusing in the visual domain, ACh acts to increase the signal relative to the noise. More specifically it increases the strength of the relevant neural signal in the visual “receptive field” which represents your point of focus to make sure it is greater than the surrounding neural signals. This helps you to label which areas of your visual field are the most important, and to inhibit nearby distractions which may otherwise disturb your attentional focus.” [2]

Dopamine and serotonin are neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are made using amino acids. The thyroid which releases thyroxine plays a vital role in the regulation and production of dopamine. “Thyroxine has been shown to play the vital role in the production of stomach acid which ultimately helps to increase the level of dopamine in brain” [3]. Stomach acids are used to release amino acids from protein. These amino acids are then used to create the neurotransmitters.

Also, extended periods of increased levels of norepinephrine can lead to stress. “A significant part of the damage is due to the effects of sustained norepinephrine release, because of norepinephrine’s general function of directing resources away from maintenance, regeneration, and reproduction, and toward systems that are required for active movement. The consequences can include slowing of growth (in children), sleeplessness, loss of libido, gastrointestinal problems, impaired disease resistance, slower rates of injury healing, depression, and increased vulnerability to addiction.” [4][5]  Essentially too much norepinephrine puts you body into a stressed state.

Cordisol, a hormone released during anxiety and stress, in turns makes it difficult to focus and recall things.

Berkley scientists published a study showing the effects of stress on the white matter in brains.[6] In it they found that chronic stress triggers long-term changes in brain structure and function.

Sustained hyperfocus can lead parts of the brain to go dormant. Similar to tearing a muscle at the gym, a strong body can be over stressed and require months to heal. Also elevated levels of hormones associated with “fight or flight” cause the body to neglect import recovery and healing functions [7][8]. The body doesn’t like extended stress. It’s designed to survive and will do what it can to eliminate threats.

In my case a combination of extended hyperfocus, lack of exercise and an irregular sleep pattern created a threat to my body’s survival. The tragedy of errors resulted in increased anxiety, nausea, and parts of the brain being damaged.

I’ve got good news. The brain can and does recover.

One key to recovering from brain fog, burnout, and the symptoms that I described is to know there is no set time. I’ve read stories of people who have light symptoms recovering in months. Others, like myself, took many years. But I’ve remained optimistic, understanding that my mind was creating new pathways as I continued to perform my work.

In 2012 I began exercising consistently. Cycling was the first sport that seemed to mirror from a physical aspect the fatigue I experienced from a mental one. Cresting a mountain on a bicycle turned the physical pain of the climb into instant euphoria and accomplishment, which is usually followed by gratitude and awe. Today, I enjoy racing in cycling competitions. [9]

I’ve since read some fascinating studies on how endurance sports that stress the cardiovascular system actually release chemicals that not only promote recovering in the muscles but also in the brain.

Finally, I highly recommend being intentionally optimistic and grateful. It not only makes the recovery process significantly more enjoyable, but the brain is hardwired to respond to positive stimuli. Possibly there is a connection between gratitude and building a strong, healthy and resilient mind.

If you are going through the experience that I described, know that it will get better.

Categories
On Intelligence

You are not your IQ!

Einstein quote

I’m just going to straight out say it. Our test of intelligence is wrong! Not only is it wrong, but it is crippling people’s confidence for no good reason. As a society we love our heros. I love Spiderman, that guy is amazing, he’s quick witted, out-smarts his enemy and has the agility of a spider. That’s pretty cool. But spiderman is not real. We often create great stories of our real heroes too. Einstein, great guy, huge imagination and remarkably intuitive. He proposed theories 55+ years ago that modern physicists rely heavily on to explain the phenomenons they are discovering today. We are told that Einsteins IQ was around 160-180. But guess what folks. He never ever took an IQ test. So that number is as much a figment of our imagination as Spiderman’s ability to climb walls.

Like our notions of beauty, the idea of IQ has been largely brought to popular culture through Hollywood. Wait, you say, what about IQ tests and academic scores? I’m not saying that IQ tests are not valuable. However they more accurately tell us our current level of education than anything else. Most IQ tests are broken up in 5 parts. There is a grammar component, mathematics component, problem solving component, pattern recognition component and history component. Each test is organized a little different, but all of them contain those components. They are scored based on efficiency (time to solve), accuracy and subject knowledge. The last IQ test I took was while I was in University. There was a question that I was asked that I only knew because the class I had just taken earlier that year had talked about that exact scenario. I scored fairly high on the test. Which is great, it meant that education was doing its part, I was retaining what I was learning. But as an intelligence indicator it failed. Had I taken different courses I would not have known many of the questions.

As I am sure many university students do during school, I conducted personal experients (often with my classmates and professors as the primary subjects). While attending the University of British Columbia Okanagan I loved getting to know my professors. During those years they became some of my heroes, they are experts in their fields of study, passionate about learning and passionate about sharing that knowledge with others. So I would watch how they interacted with the students, how they graded them, and how they evaluated intelligence. Then I started watching the students, the way in which they portrayed themselves, and how their marks reflected that appearance. I learned very quickly that in certain classes, those that were graded by theoretical, abstract or essay style exams the marks had a direct correlation between the student/professor relationship. You can read more about some of that experience here. It was in those classes I came to the astonishing conclusion, that I could predict marks based on the professors relationship with the student.

This is a very long topic, something I am fascinated by and which I am going to write about again in the future. But if you took the time to read this I want to compel you to do something. Reevaluate the way in which you view intelligence. Do you assume doctors, engineers and programmers are more intelligent than say a hockey player? If so, why do you think that? Do you assume that a successful business person is more intelligent than a successful chef? Or a professor with a doctorate is more intelligent than a business person? Are people born with certain aptitudes or do we become what we believe we can become? Lastly, what are your thoughts on intelligence? I would love to hear them.

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On Intelligence

How to restore your creative confidence: By David Kelley

I watched this Ted video tonight and I got excited because it touches on some of the ideas I have about creativity and analytical thinking. I actually wrote an article a few days ago on something similar. My thoughts were that perception of ourselves and of others locks people in as either analytical or creative. This happens with our view of intelligence as well. I believe however, that most often our potential is greater than our perceived reality. Well Kelley argues something similar. If you are interested you can read what I wrote here on When Left Meets Right.

Watch the video, it’s slow at first, but you get into it.

“David Kelley’s company IDEO helped create many icons of the digital generation — but what matters even more to him is unlocking the creative potential of people and organizations to innovate routinely. Is your school or workplace divided into “creatives” versus practical people? Yet surely, David Kelley suggests, creativity is not the domain of only a chosen few. Telling stories from his legendary design career and his own life, he offers ways to build the confidence to create.” – Video description from Ted

Here’s the link to the original video on Ted Talks.

Categories
On Intelligence

When left meets right

Left Brain Right Brain (Mercedes-Benz Ad)

I went to university for Political Science, it’s no secret (it’s on my LinkedIn profile). I actually went to university to study Biology, until I took biology 101 (yawn), that changed and I wanted to study Architecture. It is very likely that I would have studied Architecture had I not stumbled upon Political Science along the way. Now I work full time as a computer programmer. Weird.

What does this all have to do with the left brain/right brain? Some people are clearly defined as left or right brained. You can tell nearly instantly after meeting them, sometimes before meeting them (depending on how crazy their dress attire is). There are the free spirit artsy types and then there are the mathematical types. I’ve never been tested, per say, but I am fairly confident that I fit right dab in the middle. I am completely comfortable spending hours sketching free form designs or coding systematic (sometimes complex) algorithms.

While studying Political Science I had this professor who loved to make his classes increasingly more difficult. As we got better, his marking got harder. I got to know how most of my professors marked papers and tests. It wasn’t hard to know what level of work was needed to get good grades. But this one professor was impossible to crack. It wasn’t until my last year in University that I was complaining to a friend about how my professor marks his papers. We had an in class essay coming up and I ended the conversation by saying, “This time I am going to prepare so that I get 100% on this paper, and if I don’t get 90% I will know that this professor is biased.” Turns out that my professor was standing behind me the entire conversation and my friend thought it was hilarious to sit back and watch. I felt like an idiot, “great”, I thought, “He’s gonna fail me.”

What does this have to do with left brain/right brain? I’m getting to it.

In my first year of University I had an awakening moment, spending most of my prior schooling days, listening to the teacher and doing nothing else I had formed a terrible study ethic. In high-school I hadn’t needed a better one to get good grades. University turns out to take more work than just listening. So much information was being thrown at us, that by the end of the semester I was finding it less than easy to recall specific details from the beginning, I hadn’t even opened any of my expensive text books yet. Tests on theory were still easy, but I was bombing anything that required detailed memorization. By the end of the second semester I started getting depressed. Unbeknownst to me at the time, a huge part of my identity lay in people telling me I was intelligent. (Probably not a good idea to have your identity in this). Getting bad grades was like having someone constantly yell at me, “You’re not who you think you are.”

By the end of the year I spent all my spare time drawing cartoons, playing guitar, and writing. Now that I think about it, all very right brain things. I was desperately trying to find happiness in a very unhappy time and trying to avoid the seemingly inevitable. Failure. Finally it happened, I took a Political Science 101 course and I failed. My professor failed me. I couldn’t believe what just happened.

Four years later. I am long over my bad study habits. I am working as hard as I possibly can at school and it is showing. But I am frustrated that there is one class that I can’t crack. (You guessed it, this is the one and the same professor who failed me four years prior). I am overstudying for every class. I am exhausted. By the time I actually get to reading the required material for the exam I realize that I have to cram 6 extremely technical papers on International Law in just one night. Not impossible. I go to my study group. Everyone is talking about the papers and I realize that I don’t know nearly enough. I just listen, give a few thoughts, mostly listen. Go home and read. Go to class in the morning. It’s 8am, I start writing.

2 weeks later we are in class and our professor hands back our papers. I am hoping to get a passing grade. As he is handing out the papers he says, “I would like everyone to hear how to write a proper in class essay. I would like Jonathan,” he turns and looks at me, “to please read his paper to the class, and then I would like Dan to read his.” Shocked is an understatement. I was actually terrified. I couldn’t remember what I wrote, I couldn’t remember how I wrote it, my grammar was probably terrible, now I have to read it aloud to everyone in the class. After I had read the paper my friend sitting beside me (the friend from before) turned to me and said, “Wow.”  Turns out I received 90%. Which in this guy’s class was a big deal. While some people thought I had written this masterpiece, I honestly didn’t think I had written a great paper at all.

The next day I had an epiphany, it’s all about perception. What we perceive to be intelligence is exactly that, based on our perception. When my professor had overheard my conversation I had singled myself out to him, accidentally, as this hard working student who was used to getting good grades. He forgave my comments about him being biased apparently. Suddenly his perception of me was different. When he singled me out to the class, they perceived me as intelligent. My paper could have been adequate at best, but the praise of my prof gave it credibility. It all came together. Getting good grades in junior and high school was easy, not because I was brilliant, but because each year the teachers had seen me rise to accept awards, they perceived me as intelligent and graded me accordingly. I came to a conclusion. If I could come back from near failing grades to being perceived as this high performing intelligent student, anyone could. However, it is difficult, it takes work. Why? Because we have to work twice as hard. We not only have to earn good marks, we also have to convince people along the way that we are intelligent, we have to convince them to change their perception of us.

I’ll end with this, I think that the left brain and right brain focus on what they are good at, logic and abstract thinking. But I also think that we focus too much on putting people into boxes, either left or right brained. We say genius lives here, or the aloof lives there. I think genius is merely the left meeting the right. The phenomenon when our left logical brain is confused by something and our right abstract brain kicks in and looks in wonder at the person who solves it, and we conclude, they must be a genius. It’s perception.