Last summer I was super excited to give a talk at QCon New York, a…
As you may already know, I’ve invested a lot of time, money and energy trying to overcome the challenges associated with my brain’s learning deficits.
I’ve found that the various methods out there fall into two categories: things that change the brain, and things that compensate for it.
Everyone who wants a better brain should do both. Here’s why.
Compensation: Brain Hacks & Workarounds
In computer programming, anything that is a temporary or a shortcut fix is called a workaround or a “hack.”
Hack’s are like plugging a hole in your canoe while you’re in it; it’ll get you to the shore, but it’s not the best solution. So you’d better get that thing repaired the right way as soon as you can.
In the world of your brain, I consider a “brain hack” to be anything that compensates for your deficits without fixing it. Examples:
- Using a pomodoro timer to keep you on task
- Putting a post-it note on your dresser to remind you to take your bag in the morning
- Asking someone to remind you about something
- Relying on Evernote to help you remember things
- ADHD medication. It can help a lot, but the minute you take it away, you lose the benefits.
Why do I need brain hacks?
For one, fast results. Some of these methods work VERY quickly.
Medication for example: for some people with genuine ADHD, the moment they first start taking medication they change dramatically. Their attention is immediately on point, they’re more organized. It’s like night and day. (I’m not one of these people, but I’ve heard lots of anecdotes.). The right medication can absolutely be a long term solution too. But pretty much all of them stop having effects when you stop taking them, so I put these under the “hack” category.
Strategic hacks like timers, memory aids and such are things you can begin using right away. They’re cheap or free, and just require some practice. They’ve changed my life over time, and helped me as productive as someone without ADHD or learning disabilities.
What are the limitations of brain hacks?
It differs, but fast and easy usually comes with caveats. Medication in particular generally has side effects, and long-term I’ve met a enough people who are unhappy with it. I myself felt miserable on the medications I’ve tried.
Stimulants in particular can have a negative impact on sleep and anxiety – both of which, when improved, can actually help your ADHD a lot.
The strategic hacks are also imperfect too; looking up something in your notes is never as fast as actually remembering it.
But that said, everyone should use these strategic hacks, and medication can be a GREAT short term solution, much like the boat analogy above. If you can work around your brain’s shortcomings quickly, you can carve out time to spend working on long term solutions. Which leads me to…
Brain Upgrades: Actually Changing Your Brain
The following was amazing news when I first heard it: We now know that the brain is very, very neuroplastic. In other words, your attention problems can be changed, in a very lasting way.
How phenomenal is that? The things that we struggle with – sustaining attention, remembering things, being organized, learning speed – they actually can be changed. It gives me a hope that words cannot describe.
Why wouldn’t anyone take this route, over any of the quick fixes above? As it turns out, long-term solutions for anything aren’t necessarily easy or cheap. Who knew?
The scary parts
- Some of these therapies can be expensive. In New York, I’ve worked with occupational therapists and Neurofeedback professionals who gave me great results, but cost anywhere from $150/hr to $200/hr.
- These therapies can take time to work (sometimes many months of consistent practice).
- Most require a certain commitment to see results. None of this once-a-week stuff (more like 3-5 times per week).
- Insurance doesn’t usually cover many of these, except possibly CBT – and even then it may be only by reimbursement. Mental health coverage in the U.S. isn’t great.
- Nothing is guaranteed; so you’re taking a calculated gamble anytime you try something.
Here are the types of things that have the potential to change your brain long-term.
- Foundational lifestyle changes: optimal sleep, nutrition & exercise for brain health.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
- Occupational Therapy, in some cases
- Primitive Reflex exercises & systems (Brain Gym, Rhythmic Movement Training and other programs like them)
- Meditation & Yoga
- Neurofeedback & Biofeedback
- Computer Based Brain Training (Lumosity, etc)
- Integrated Listening Systems (ILS)
From what I’ve read, heard and tried – all of these things have some kind of potential for long-term results with brain improvement. And I highly recommend you look into them if you’re serious about improving your brain. But know this…
Brain improvement isn’t fast and easy – nor cheap.
I’ve had different types of results with many of the techniques above. Meditation has improved my self control and speaking ability a lot. Breathing techniques have had a profound effect on my anxiety levels, which in turn help my focus and concentration. CBT has improved my ability to strategize, handle challenging situations, and make better decisions. Brain Gym had impressive effects on my coordination and speaking ability, and visual control in a short amount of time.
If these things are so amazing, why isn’t everyone doing them? Or why am I not fully ‘cured’ for that matter? Truthfully everything has its downsides. Meditation is a long-term practice. Big benefits abound, but they’re gradual and take consistent practice. CBT also takes practice, and is costly if you don’t have insurance (or it’s not covered). Brain Gym was impressive, but also costly – and not to mention a little goofy-looking if you’re an adult.
But let me be clear – things like these are things you NEED to progress with any kind of brain problems. Just do your research, pick carefully and stay dedicated to whatever you pick for a few months to see if there are results. And make sure you get tests done before and after to see if things actually work or not (more on this in another post).
My brain improvement strategy: the best of both worlds
The truth is, there’s no magic wand for people like us. If you’re “blessed” (notice the quotes) with the brain differences we have, you’ll have great results by combining short-term brain hacks, practical tricks and long-term approaches.
I recommend trying medication as a quick fix; if nothing else, you’ll know how much it affects you. If it works, use it until you figure out a better solution. Add a few compensatory strategies to make life a little easier. In parallel with that, work on a good foundation of sleep, nutrition, exercise and stress reduction.
After all that’s established, then start investing in the long term experiments above.
In other words, plug the holes in the boat until you get to the shore. Then work on rebuilding it till it’s more solid. It WILL sail again, and eventually it’ll sail faster.