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Brain Training

One day last week I drank too much tea too late in the day. Instead of going to bed at my normal 1:30-2am time, I went to bed after 3am. The next morning I woke up around eleven, feeling a bit slothful for sleeping in. Usually I make some nice green tea in the morning, but I skipped it that day, half because I had overdosed on tea the day before, and half because it was almost the afternoon. I sat down at my computer, but instead of doing my daily planning, I started researching Persian rugs.

By one in the afternoon I was still sitting at my computer in my skivvies, having done nothing more substantial than gain a comprehensive amateur understanding of what to look for in a Persian rug, and maybe answering a handful of medium-priority emails.

The day was off to a bad start. Not a horrific start, like the kind where you lose your arm in a grain combine, but the kind where you've gotten such a slow start that the day begins to feel like a waste.

I opened up Google Calendar to plan my day, but then closed it. What's the point, I thought, when I've already wasted so much time? There was no chance it was going to be an excellent day, so my brain was trying to steer me towards just writing the day off and refocusing on the next one.

11. My brain on stimulants (part3)

On The Itinerant Tern

Our lives are full of reruns. While every individual day may have its own unique set of events and experiences, most of what we see and do is something we have already seen and done. I often look back on a month and can only recall a handful of times when my brain was stimulated by a new challenge, environment or activity. The rest of the days seem to run together like some monotonous pattern that I habitually follow. I think I finally understand why this situation bothers me (and probably many others) so much.The mouse that runs the same maze over and over eventually gets good at the task. Its brain activity then plummets, because the task has become an easy routine instead of a stimulating experience. The brain senses a cue (being put in the maze and smelling cheese), it reruns the routine (running the maze along a remembered path) in order to reach the reward stimulation (cheese) at the end. The Power of a Habit explains that this is the process by which habits are cemented into our brains. This is very useful for making us more efficient, and it frees up brain power for other tasks. By doing so, however, the brain essentially cuts out the best parts in the name of efficiency.I see a parallel between being stimulated by the exploration of the new and the feeling of being alive.Routine is to exploring as living is to being alive. It sounds pretty obvious. I know that my brain chemistry in not exactly typical, but I'm sure that I'm not the only one who only feels good when my brain is forced to rev to the redline.Armed with this new insight, the pieces started to come together for me. The existential migration group, with which I now identify, has two identifying characteristics: the urge to become foreigners in a foreign land and a strong preference for the new and unusual. Both can be explained by a very high need for stimulation. Imagine ripping yourself from the comfortable routines of your homeland and transplanting your life into a foreign environment. You gain immediate stimulation from new and unusual (to you) locations, culture, people, food, etc. Also, you lose all of the cues that were the basis on which you built your habits. Suddenly, your brain is both free to make new choices and forced to make choices non-stop, because there are no rails to follow anymore.Here at home, I feel like we try to medicate this state of low stimulation (boredom) with entertainment. TV, movies, games, internet junk, and shopping each provide a brief fix, but the euphoria never lasts because this is only a simulation of "living". I have gone through major addictions to all of these at one point or another, because they were like junk food for my brain. One idea that stemmed from this newfound understanding of my needs was my "one new experience every day" challenge, which I guess I'll write about next time.The last point returns us to the rerun analogy. It occurred to me that if I live a rerun of a day that I have already lived, then I have essentially shortened my life by one day. I wasn't truly alive during that time, and I will never remember anything that happened then. Obviously, this happens quite a bit more than once a year. I think the whole idea of taking a vacation stems from this problem. Perhaps we vacation to exotic locales in order to get away from the reruns of our everyday lives and collect a couple of weeks of interesting experiences to satiate us for the rest of the year.

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