Brains are complicated and definitely not binary

Last week I read a post from Jesse Meadows, someone taking a critical studies approach to ADHD, called You’re using the word ‘neurodiversity’ wrong. Meadows did such a great job of explaining something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, you should probably read their post instead of this one, which is mostly just my feels about the topic.

I was introduced to the word ‘neurodiversity’ and it’s friend neurodivergent as a useful umbrella term for a collection of related things like ADHD and autism. No-one quite explained it, so I got kind of the wrong idea about it. But it turns out that the actual meaning of it is much more interesting and useful to me.

People lately often talk about neurotypical and neurodivergent like they’re two types of brain. But as Meadows says, neurodiversity is a way of thinking about human variability and challenging default structures of society. It’s not a diagnosis, and it’s not a biological marker. It’s more like a willingness to re-think things we take for granted because we’ve been raised in a society which rewards behaviour that meets patriarchal, capitalist needs. If you don’t meet those needs, then your way of living is turned into a medical problem (or worse, a crime).

Autistic folks and people with ADHD are much more likely to have neurodivergent ways of thinking. But they can still be trapped in neurotypical societies and systems, and take on a kind of internalised prejudice because of that. And anyone willing to do the work of re-thinking how we live can be part of building neurodiversity in our world.

A plastic model of a brain, showing the folds of material and the connections to the nervous system, circulation, etc.
Look at this complicated jumble of stuff. Photo by Robina Weermeijer on Unsplash

I feel like this really fits in to other activist stuff I’ve been learning. Humans so easily fall into thinking in binary terms. But bodies are too messy to be contained that way. We’re not zeroes and ones in the Matrix, we’re flesh and blood and networks of neurons.

Some other examples of binaries I was taught but now know aren’t real:

  • Bodies don’t just come in two types: man or woman. Intersex and transgender people exist.
  • Sexuality isn’t just straight or gay. Bisexual erasure is a thing, and asexual people exist too.
  • I’m so unqualified to talk about race, but it’s obviously more complicated than just black and white. I mean that in a literal sense as well as metaphorically!

So why would ways of thinking and understanding the world be any different? There’s not just typical and non-typical. Hardly anyone is actually typical! Brain science is still so new, and almost all of the research done so far is by tertiary-educated white men who used their nearly-tertiary-educated white male students as research subjects. It’s slowly changing, but we can’t take what we know so far as being definitive of what a “normal” brain is.

A healthy ecosystem is a diverse ecosystem. Recognising that diversity is how we keep society and individuals safe and happy, I reckon.

A little sleep hack

My CPTSD means I have trouble getting to sleep. I’m often in Stage One phases for too long, which is kind of like being technically asleep but not getting any of the benefits.

A therapist on TikTok (I wish I’d saved the link) shared a trick they use themselves and with their clients. They pick a letter from the alphabet and try to think of as many foods as they can that start with that letter. When they think of one, they try to clearly visualise that food before moving on.

The idea behind this is that our brains naturally do a jumble of random ideas and images during the transition from Stage One to Stage Two sleep. So doing it on purpose, while staying away from anything emotional or puzzling, helps remind our body of what’s supposed to be happening.

🌺 🌭🔨🐹

I’ve been doing it for the last few nights and I think it’s working? Food wasn’t quite working by itself, I kept trying too hard. So I do objects instead – food but also clothes, plants, tools, decorations, whatever. When I can’t easily think of any more things, I move on to the next letter of the alphabet. If I can’t visualise the thing easily, I call that a “miss” and move on to a new object. I’m not great at visualising stuff, and sometimes my object is more of a concept. I think it’s working for me because it’s just enough structure that I don’t have to think too hard, but not so much structure that I actually have to be alert to do it right.

Each morning for the last week, the last thing I remember from the night before is my letter game. Usually I’d have a whole pile of random worries or plans for the future in a repeating cycle for an hour or so before I hit Stage Two sleep. Now it’s more like 5 or 10 minutes of hibiscus and hot dogs then I’m properly asleep.

We’ll see if it keeps working after I get habituated to it, or if the cycle of my meds disrupts it. But honestly I’m just really happy to have found something that works more than once!

Distraction as self-care?

You can’t live your whole life in crisis mode, even when you are actually in the middle of half a dozen personal and political crises. It’ll give you a psychological disorder, if you don’t already have one. It’s horrible for your physical health, so it will just make another burden for you in the future. We have to take breaks or we’ll grind ourselves to death.

So I’ve been thinking about how to take breaks in a way that doesn’t make me feel guilty. I’m not talking about holidays, but about daily self-care which lets me continue to deal with shit and maybe even find fulfillment. But to take a break from my vague Cluster A issues or family drama or work or the climate crisis or the rising tide of fascism means I have to deliberately put my mind onto something else or else I’ll just drift back to one of those problems. I have to distract myself.

Distraction is usually framed as a personal weakness, one which can be exploited by capitalism or fascists. But without our ability to be distracted from our current task we’d never observe signals of danger like screeching tyres, smoke on the horizon, the 45th president of the USA, etc. It’s a feature of the brain, not a bug. It can absolutely be exploited for bad stuff, but it evolved as a survival instinct. What if we expanded our idea of “survival” here?

A small neon sign on a wall under overflowing pot plants. It says Flow, with an arrow pointing down and to the left.
Photo by Maksym Tymchyk on Unsplash

We could actively use distraction as a form of self-care, instead of just letting it happen accidentally then kicking ourselves for being weak. We could take refreshing breaks which build our physical and mental health, instead of reading yet another “look at this arsehole” post on the internet.

I don’t have any scientific basis for claiming that distraction can be a form of self-care. It’s just an opinion I’m forming lately. Things which have contributed to that opinion:

  • learning about flow states, and the positive effects they have on us
  • Jenny Odell’s book How To Do Nothing, which I think is going to turn out to be a touchstone for me for a long time
  • Oliver Burkeman’s book Four Thousand Weeks, on attention and distraction
  • I haven’t read Audre Lorde yet, but have seen so many references to her work on self-care as an act of political resistance that I’ve added it to my to-read list

So if we want to use distraction as one form of self-care, how would that work? Here’s the how-to instructions I’ve come up with for myself:

  1. Make a conscious choice to distract yourself from your worries and burdens. Plan ahead for it, like “on Sunday afternoon after lunch, I’m going to take a break until it’s time to call Greg”. Look forward to it with anticipation.
  2. Choose a distraction which is actually refreshing. Doomscrolling is easy and is often a genuine break because it can put you in a flow state. But you’re just replacing one worry with another worry, so it doesn’t count as self-care. Action movies, silly match-3 games, playing with your dogs or watching home renovation shows are going to give you more rest and relaxation.
  3. If you can, choose a distraction which enriches your life. For me, that’s reading, crafting and art. Spending time with my own or other people’s creativity makes my life better in so many ways, and I feel replenished, not just rested. Nature bathing is also great, a way of re-finding your place within the ecosystem and the perspective that brings.

At the very least, I think intentional distraction is better than accidental distraction. We’ll see if it works as self-care though.

Getting things done with resets

I’ve been using some variation of the Getting Things Done method for about 15 years now. It just works for the way my brain is built.

One of the traps of GTD is when you spend more time reviewing and choosing the tools than actually getting things done. You can get into debates about the best way to maintain your system, whether digital or paper-based is better, and how to prevent yourself from letting your system stagnate because you slowly stop using it.

I’ve changed my GTD tools many, many times. I’ve used a Palm Pilot, the Notes app in my phone, dedicated GTD apps, paper journals, bullet journals and post-it notes. And each time I slowly stop using that system.

When I stop doing my GTD routines, I’m fine for a few weeks or a month. Then my anxiety over all the things I’m supposed to be doing mounts up. I forget birthdays or have to get extensions on deadlines. And I look at my old dusty setup, and decide to ignore it. It’s just full of reminders of my failures. I tell myself I don’t need a system, I just need more willpower.

And then my life gets even more disorganised. I finally admit the truth (again), which is that I have some executive dysfunction and routines are helpful for me. But I still want to avoid the scene of my previous failure, so I pick up a fresh tool (currently ToDoist) and start again.

This used to make me feel guilty. I wasn’t doing real GTD! I’m a poorly organised person! I have no loyalty or grit!

But I’ve decided not to bother feeling guilty about it anymore. Perfect adherence to a system is for robots. It’s fun to play with new tools, and if that’s what I need to get me back into a helpful routine then so be it. David Allen isn’t going to come to my house to tell me off! And I can avoid at least a month of mild background stress if I stop delaying and just pick up a shiny new tool.

Voting stories

The first time I voted in a federal election, I was 19 or 20 years old. The Labor party had been in government for several years, with Hawke just removed to make way for PM Keating. This was Keating’s first time going to election as the PM rather than Treasurer.

12 men and 2 women standing on the steps of a building
By Commonwealth of Australia (National Archives of Australia), CC BY 3.0 au

No-one I knew was excited about John Howard or the Coalition, but there was a general feeling that Labor had been in power long enough and Keating was too snobby compared to Hawke. At the time I thought my parents voted Labour but I’ve since discovered that both are swing voters.

I was so keen to be a swing voter. No politician can count on my vote, I thought – they’ll have to earn it with good policies! I read the news and watched as much of the ABC’s political shows as I could before getting bored by old men talking nonsense.

I voted at a polling place in the primary school across from my rental share-house. I put Labour first in the House of Reps, and Democrats (remember them?) first in the Senate. I was actually mildly surprised that Howard and the Coalition won. Hadn’t people noticed that the Liberal party policies were kind of mean? Maybe there’s a lot of National voters in other parts of Australia, I thought.

John Howard sitting at his seat in the United Nations
John Howard, by Helene C. Stikkel

Over the next 13 years I repeatedly checked the policies of each candidate, getting excited as some of them figured out how to build websites so it was easier for me to do my research. I kept voting for some combination of Labor, Democrats and the Greens when they were running in my area. I didn’t always like all of their policies, but the Liberals’ economic theories were dis-proven and a lot of their politicians were sexist. Plus I couldn’t stand Howard, Costello or Abbott just on a personal level. And there was no way I was going to vote for One Nation, who were openly racist and were led by a woman who said she would solve the budget deficit by literally printing more money.

Each election night I hung out with friends or texted them as Howard won again and again. We shook our heads as Howard rescued his failing popularity by lying about children being thrown overboard from the Tampa, then used 9/11 to look like a safe choice to lead us into a war that half of us didn’t want or even think was in the right country. We debated the GST, and whether Costello would ever have the guts to challenge Howard, and complained that selling off public assets isn’t the same as good economic management. We yelled as Abbott tried to make RU486 a government controlled substance and stood by all the child-abusing priests. We swore we’d slap Rupert Murdoch if we ever got to meet him.

I became cynical about Australia. So many people voting based on the promise of a little tax cut, or because they hated refugees. At some point someone suggested I watch Don’s Party, but it was so full of old people doing old-fashioned things it was hard to relate to. Nowadays I’d say it was “peak boomer” material – culturally relevant to a specific moment in time, but treated as if it contains universal truth. Maybe it’s time for a Gen Z reboot.

After a while I wanted to get involved. I still didn’t trust any specific political party, so I volunteered for Get Up instead. We worked to educate people about preferential voting, and climate change, and refugee treatment.

Me in a straw hat standing next to Dave wearing a cricket cap and orange GetUp shirt, holding the Undecided voter flyers.
Me and Dave – we look so young and skinny here!

My favourite action with them was one where we showed up on Election Day to hand out scorecards on the top issues chosen from a poll. In among all the vollies from the parties, we wore orange and shouted “Undecided? Come get a scorecard and a fortune cookie!” I had so many people say things like “oh thank god, I know I should pay more attention to politics but I’ve just been so busy”. A few people asked how I was voting, and I told them I was voting Greens but they should vote for whoever best matched their values. Strategic voting just makes you feel manipulated, and no-one’s going to give you a gold star for voting for the eventual winner. I helped them find what was important to them on the scorecard. That year it felt like I’d actually helped people participate more fully in democracy than they would have otherwise.

My next favourite experience while volunteering was during the 2007 election, which was otherwise a pretty crappy day. The vollies from the conservative parties were pretty shitty towards us – we’d always been teased a bit, but it was usually good natured. But I think this time they knew that Kevin 07 was a winner, so they were feeling grumpy and took it out on us. They tried to “debate” us, and assumed we were unemployed or paid to be there. I was feeling pretty worn down by it all, and I wasn’t as confident of Labor winning after so many years of disappointment. Plus the polling place didn’t have any cake stall or community fundraising snacks or even a vending machine. Just a black asphalt car park outside a run-down church. But then a lovely conversation happened that made it all worth while. An African lady came up to me and said, you are wonderful, all you volunteers are wonderful. She’d gone home to get her kids to show them the polling place, and told us where she grew up the elections had to be guarded by armed soldiers to stop fights from breaking out, or worse. But here we were, chatting and laughing and it was safe to bring children. She was a refugee from war, and this was her first time being eligible to vote in Australia. “Oh my goodness” I said “now I’m even more upset that there’s no cake stall for you!” I said to her that next time she should vote at a polling place set up in a school, it’s usually much more fun than this. But I did feel a little bit proud, and it reminded me that we’re so lucky to be able to change government without any guns, just some pencils and paper.

The year I found out that writing on your ballot doesn’t make it invalid, as long as the numbers are clear, I wrote on my ballot. The usual example is that it’s okay to draw a dick, but that’s not my style. I just wanted to take advantage of this little bit of self-expression beyond my actual little vote. So I wrote a thank-you note to the election staff in the margin of my House Of Reps ballot.

Oddly enough it took me many years to acknowledge that I would never be a real swing voter. The more I learned about politics and history, the more I realised that the individual politicians or the policies they announce during election season don’t matter as much as their underlying ideology. And right-wing economics is evidence-free bullshit (harsh but true). Plus they firmly believe in a social hierarchy that puts straight, white, rich men at the top. I just can’t support that, even when I quibble with the personalities or policies of the left-wing parties.

So for me now it’s the Greens with preferences to Labor. I don’t vote differently in the Senate than I do in the House of Reps anymore, but I think that style of voting went out when Natasha Stott-Despoja left politics so I guess I’m not alone there.

I still think it’s important to vote according to your values. We have preferential voting, so you can’t waste your vote. The Gillard minority government was one of the most productive this century – we got the NDIA and Gonski funding for schools, the NBN was begun, and we got what I hope was our first (not our only) carbon price. If more people voted for parties based on who would represent them best, not who they think will form government or who’s offering the best bribe, we’d get minority governments which have to collaborate with cross-benchers to get anything done.

The biggest change in my voting over the last three decades is that as much as I will always try to persuade people to vote like me, I think it’s more important that they vote at all, and that they understand how our democracy works. That lovely lady who was so thrilled that elections are peaceful here always reminds me that we can’t take democracy for granted. We have to work for it to keep it safe, even when the politicians and issues change over time.

And for that reason, I’d probably still try to slap Rupert Murdoch if I met him.

Resisting Facebook, the sequel

Last year I “cleaned up” my Facebook settings. I installed a privacy plugin, and unfollowed a lot of brands, and said no to being tracked for advertising purposes. I also told myself I was going to post more fun things and less angry-making stuff about politics or whatever.

It did make Facebook slightly more interesting to read, although 80% of my posts are still angry things about politics.

The big change though is that the ads I see are much more relevant to me now. Instead of generic middle-aged lady things like layered dresses and weight-loss sorry, wellness programs, I now get ads for eco-friendly products and inclusive clothing brands.

I’ve gotten so used to this that I forgot it had even happened until I was joking around on Twitter with some other women about getting generic ads for adult women, full of stereotypes. But the ads I see now are actually much more relevant to my interests than when they were trying to mine all my data to find out what ads I would like. All they’ve got to go on are my posts and what things I comment on or react to, and apparently that’s what they should have been doing all along.

So far this year I’ve actually bought two products from Facebook ads: some bathers (swimmers? not sure what other regional words there are for these) from a size-inclusive and eco-friendly brand, and a bamboo flat-pack coffee table.

I don’t know if Jenny Odell would approve, but I’m pretty sure Tim Hwang would take this as another data point that programmatic advertising isn’t as good as category advertising.

How To Change Your Mind, Michael Pollan

Cover of How To Change Your Mind, a green cover with a person swinging from a cloudPollan has taken his love of botany to a new place in this book. How To Change Your Mind is focused on psychedelics, which are a group of drugs which give a “trippy” effect. Psychedelics from mushrooms have been used since the dawn of human kind (probably), with a brief Western moment of publicity and research in the 1950s. This of course was followed by a moral panic in the 60s, so that the research into how they can help people has only recently started up again.

Pollan covers this history by targeting a few times and places, then discusses the brain science behind psychedelics before examining the new research and where it might lead. In between these sections are descriptions of the trips he took while researching. It’s obvious he had to define a tight scope for this book or else he’d have written a whole encyclopaedia about this topic. I’d loved to have read more about the way indigenous people use these drugs, or more about European researchers, or other similar families of drugs. I’m glad he tried to make the trip diaries readable rather than detailed though – there’s only so much you can read of people trying to describe such an un-describable experience. I was more interested in the before and after of each trip, how he approached them and what consequences they had.

Close up of a psilocybe azurescens mushroom. It is small, with a yellow-ish light brown cap and a pale stem.
Psilocybin azurescens mushroom. Source: shroom360 at Mushroom Observer CC BY-SA 4.0

He frequently mentions the way that psychedelics have a side-effect of making people really excited to share psychedelics with other people. I lost count of the number of people he interviewed who took one trip then changed their work to focus on making psychedelics more widely available in some way. Scientists did it with research, psychologists by including them in treatment, artists by hopping on a bus to drive across the USA handing out acid at concerts. Knowing how he feels about how humans co-evolved with plants, I was sure he’d eventually speculate that the enthusiastic evangelism of trippers is a mushroom’s way of propagating itself more widely. But no, not even when he talks about Paul Stamets calling mushroom mycelium the “wood-wide web”! If a desire to convert people is a side effect, maybe part of the effect is not realising the mushroom is using you for its own purposes. Sneaky mushrooms!

As I read the book I related very much to his apprehension that tripping would lead him away from his materialist, atheist world view and persuade him of more New Age takes on consciousness. It was a relief to find that most people don’t radically change their beliefs after experiencing the dissolution of their self, but instead make a fresh commitment to their existing values. Almost all of the people who made big changes in their lives did so by quitting things they’d never been 100% happy about but hadn’t felt like they could stop doing. Addictions, careers, relationships, that sort of thing. And Pollan is a humanist as well as an atheist, so in spite of his frequent doubts about the reliability of his interviewees he writes about them with compassion and an openness to being proven wrong.

From reading this, I’m now thinking that if I had a safe opportunity to try mushrooms I’d definitely take it out of curiosity. Maybe LSD too. But where I live that’s not likely to happen in a way I’d be comfortable with. Maybe one day that will change.

Resisting Facebook

After reading How To Do Nothing, I decided that I should do a regular spring clean of my Facebook account. I’d like to close my account altogether, but it’s the only way I have of keeping in touch with some people.

What I’ve done so far:

  • Installed a privacy thingy on my desktop computer (I already had an ad blocker)
  • Unfollowed and unliked all the brands I was following
  • Unfollowed news sources (except for The Chaser)
  • Hid the trending topics
  • Unfollowed a bunch of people I only slightly know (nothing personal if that was you!)
  • Checked all my profile settings on phone and tablet
  • Put a reminder in my calendar for a year from now to do a spring clean

I’m assuming that since I’m not perfect, I’ll end up following a few more brands and will need to clean them out every so often. And Zuckerberg loves to change the settings, including overriding your preferences, so I’ll need to keep an eye on them.

What I’ll be trying to do from now on:

  • Post jokes, or updates on what I’m up to, or cool things I’ve found outside of FB. No hot takes on politics or celebrities!
  • Avoid engaging with clickbait that other people share
  • Only checking once a day

This will not bring about the downfall of Facebook.But I reckon it’ll help reduce the time I spend there, and make it a bit more pleasant.

How To Do Nothing – Jenny Odell

Book cover with white text over a photo of a flowering hedge, all green leaves with pink, red, white and yellow flowers.This is less of a review and more of a set of notes on Jenny Odell’s How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. The title makes it sound like it might be a how-to book or a Luddite diatribe, but it’s not. It’s more of an exploration of the ways we could reframe our thinking, and it’s written in a “form meets function” kind of way. As she says in the introduction:

“Less a lecture than an invitation to take a walk”

Odell lays out the familiar problems with social media. It pushes us to constantly be online, demands that we participate in the hype of the moment, and puts humanitarian crises on the same level as someone’s new shoes. It distracts us while our attention is monetised for someone else’s benefit. And it creates a context collapse, so that we become the blandest version of ourselves.

If the little drips of negative effects of distraction accumulate, we don’t do what we want to do each day. Many days of this lead to us not living the life we want, or even having capacity to know what we want.

Whenever this topic comes up, people say we should delete our social media accounts. As Odell points out, that’s quite a privileged take. It assumes that you have enough social capital that people will seek you out offline, or that someone else will take care of your social life (I’m thinking particularly of married men who “let” their wives handle that for them then are lonely when she leaves him or dies). And it ignores both the fun and useful aspects of socialising online, plus the way that the internet has enabled people to make genuine connections and raise awareness of real problems.

Another frequent suggestion is to do a digital detox, a temporary break to refresh ourselves. But digital detoxes are usually marketed as a way to take a break so that we can return to work more productive than ever before. What if we don’t want to take a break from the endless now of social media just to get better at grinding our way through a capitalist work life?

Odell says that history shows that a better way forward is to resist rather than retreat. We need to develop our skills for thoughtfulness so that we’re not pushed around by the demands of the attention economy. And we can try to be too weird and difficult to be consumed by Mark Zuckerberg!

Some ways of training ourselves to do this are to get into art and nature, as hobbies or just by going for walks. Both art and nature are difficult to manipulate and monetise, and so to enjoy them we have to actively change our perceptions. Once you start paying attention differently, you can become engaged with what’s right in front of you. If you connect with the people and wildlife around you, and learn the history of your place you live, you’ll have more challenging and interesting things to do than sit back and be spoon-fed smooth algorithmic content.

Odell reckons, and I think I agree, that if we can manage that we’ll be genuinely refreshed and have time for contemplation. By doing what the attention economy considers “nothing”, we might just be able to put our attention towards big problems like civil rights, and climate change.

This is a pretty rough summary. If any of this sounds interesting to you then you absolutely should read the book. You might get a different set of ideas from it than I did.

Repressive forces don’t stop people expressing themselves but rather force them to express themselves; What a relief to have nothing to say, the right to say nothing, because only then is there a chance of framing the rare, and ever rarer, thing that might be worth saying. – Gilles Deleuze

Interesting stuff mentioned in the book, mostly art

Woodcut style poster, of someone working, sleeping and reading in a boat
The old union saying “8 hours for work, 8 hours for rest, and 8 hours for what we will” was started by the Federation of Organized Trades & Labour Unions. This image is linked to Ricardo Levins Morales Art Studio, where you can buy it as a poster.

Extreme busyness is a symptom of deficient vitality – Robert Louis Stevenson

Added to my to-read list