Your ability to focus declines after 30 (it’s not just because smartphones)

This uncharacteristically warm weather feels more like LA than NY, and this trendy trekker is definitely bringing the heat. A simple black t-shirt and jeans hasn’t looked this good since Hank Moody. Forget the beautiful weather outside, all I care...

There are two totally separate systems that govern attention:

  • your ability to maintain focus on the thing (‘enhancement’)
  • your ability to tune out other things (‘suppression’).

“These processes are so separate, in fact, there are different networks of brain structures that carry out their respective functions, each of which is critical for attention.”

Although it may seem counterintuitive, we now appreciate that focusing and ignoring are not two sides of the same coin […] it is not necessarily true that when you focus more on something, you automatically ignore everything else better.

By understanding these as separate systems, rather than seeing an inability to suppress distractions as just a side-effect of not having focused well enough, you’ll be better equipped to try and improve the situation.

This article says that it’s the suppression aspect, our ability to tune out distracting stimuli, that declines with age. That’s a huge relief, because as a kid I used to read in the playground and not notice stuff like a basketball hitting the wall next to my head (generally thrown by a kid who was annoyed that I spent all my lunchtimes reading.) But I can’t do that anymore, and I assumed it was just smartphones and stuff, the Age of Distraction, and I’d let that skill deteriorate through my own fault. But it probably isn’t, not totally.

So, just like if you needed reading glasses you’d just buy them and wear them, maybe now you need to remove external distractions to read a book properly, and you should go ahead and do that instead of just CONCENTRATING… HARDER…

It also probably means older people are genuinely more sensitive to a cluttered room or desk than young people (rather than young people just being too lazy to tidy or whatever the prevailing theory is).

Also you already know this, but meditating will help you improve since it’s literally practising focusing, go on, take your damn medicine.

Image taken from hotdudesreading.tumblr.com

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“What should I do about my broken heart?”

“It’s been broken for a few weeks now and no sign of abating.” — reader question from Anonymous.

Aw geez. Oh man. That’s… that’s WELL outside my remit. But you know that right? So it’s probably okay to answer. Also literally no one has ever figured out how to be cool about having a broken heart so you can’t possible actually expect me to fix things. Okay. Phew.
I’m gonna start by giving the answer of Emily Nagoski, sex and relationships researcher:

There’s nothing to “do” exactly; like there’s nothing to “do” about having a stomach bug. You can drink ginger beer and eat saltines, but it’s just going to suck horribly for a while, until your body works through it. Go for the ride, let it suck. Your brain will flail around looking for something to DO about the injury, the way a soldier in battle looks for the next enemy to attack, but there is no enemy here, just rage and hurt and grief and fear. Lots of feelings, all revved up with nowhere to go. So you journal and cry and scream and wait for the cycle to complete itself.” Full blog post

Now my answer:

  1. Ugggghhhh that sucks
  2. A few weeks is not so long that I think you’re fucked. I think that’s a pretty normal amount to be devastated for. So I don’t think it’s evidence that you won’t get better.
  3. I have never known how to fix it, the only thing I know how to do is survive until it gets better on its own. It can be helpful to remind yourself of that.
  4. “I don’t have to feel okay, I just have to make it through.”
  5. Constant, I mean constant distraction. Just binge watch everything. Can’t feel if your brains filled up with images and sounds! Nice friends can come over for half an hour and watch Season 4, Episode 11 of Charmed with you. It’s really okay to ask them to do that and refuse to talk to them.
  6. When it’s really bad, like can’t breathe, maybe gonna die, panic attack bad, it helps to concentrate 100% on the present moment and what you are seeing, hearing, feeling. So not “she left me” or “I want them” but a litany of neutral observations of the present moment. “I am in my bedroom. My doona cover is yellow. There is a sharp pain in my lungs. I can hear a truck. My face is wet. My throat hurts. My cupboard door is open. The door handle is white and chipped.” And so on. Focusing on the sensations rather than what the sensations mean can get you through.
  7. Sometimes I think of myself as dead? Not permanently, not suicidally, it’s just like… setting your baseline expectation for your life to zero. So in this time period, you are not gonna do anything or achieve anything or feel anything good, if you just think of this period as not existing, it can help. Because you’re not beating yourself up for not feeling better, or trying, or something. (I do this when I have an astronomical amount of work to do as well, so I don’t get FOMO when I can’t go to things or be happy, I’m just like “I’m dead right now, that’s how it is.” I actually have a name for me when I’m dead, a totally unrelated girl’s name. I’m aware this is a bit creepy but everyone has their own creepy habits they don’t talk about. (IMPORTANT: the nature of ‘thinking of myself as dead’ that I’m talking about here is temporary, which makes it nothing like real death whatsoever. If you’re feeling tempted by the idea of suicide, tell a close friend and/or chat to Lifeline (link to their online chat) literally this actual second.
  8. Related to the above, sometimes doing shit stuff that will help alive-you, the you of the future, can help. Or rather, it doesn’t help but you’re miserable anyway so you might as well be miserable while getting some money or whatever. Push-ups so that alive, future-you is stronger, personal admin, selling stuff on ebay, etc. Being dead can be kind of an advantage here.
  9. Here’s Emily Nagoski’s talk on the science of relationships, attachment theory, break-ups etc. Understanding stuff helps me feel better, even if it doesn’t help help.

 Ask me a question on any topic except contemporary politics by commenting here or emailing thewhippet (at) mckinleyvalentine.com  make sure to include how/if you want to be named/linked.

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Let’s talk about house clothes

That is, the clothes you only ever wear at home. I just bought my fifth robe / dressing gown so I am extremely qualified to talk about this. People tend to wear pretty ugly house clothes – I don’t mean that I find them ugly, which, why would you care, I mean that people wear house clothes they themselves find ugly.

You go out of your way to buy nice outdoors clothes, but indoors you just sort of where whatever. This isn’t some Coco Chanel thing about keeping up standards, I just think you theorise that it doesn’t matter but you end up feeling frumpy and sleepy and ineffective, and unspecial, like, you dress pretty to see other people but not for yourself?

Esp if you’re mental health is not good, feeling like you look awesome when you’re bumming around at home really helps. And then when you get changed into them when you get home, it’s a reward to yourself for having bravely left the house.

Pretty much you have to take the nice fabrics route, I think, because you still want to be gloriously comfortable, and exactly the right warmth. And obviously don’t wear an underwire bra, obviously.

Also about house clothes: they can be costumes, they can be the clothes you kinda wish you would wear outside but won’t (the most recent robe is a rainbow space galaxy with sweeping sleeves and a watercolour unicorn on the back). I mean, you can buy Hogwarts house robes online. Pyjamas come in way cuter patterns than jeans. You can go from naked to amazingly dressed in two seconds. They are blankets you can walk around in!

Esp for men who are kind of expected to wear the most dour shit as their day to day wear, you can wear just any kind of colours and cuteness, or like, leggings printed with chainmail armour.

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“Have you ever cried during a movie?”

Reader question from Peter.

A: Yes, loads, I hardly ever watch movies but when I do I am 100% on board with having my emotions cheaply manipulated. I always cry at the bits you’re sposed to cry at. You feel like you can breathe easier afterwards. And if you’re really not coping, it fills up your emotional capacity with different, ‘fake’ emotions that are much more manageable, so there’s no space left for your own unbearable ones – not a long-term solution but a useful stopgap measure.

When I really feel like crying I watch YouTube clips of What Would You Do? It’s like candid camera, except instead of pranks, a homophobic waitress refuses to serve a family with two mums, or someone can’t afford to buy groceries, and then they film it to see how bystanders will respond (spoiler: HEARTWARMINGLY).

Ask me a question on literally any topic except contemporary politics (doesn’t have to be about crying) by commenting or emailing thewhippet (at) mckinleyvalentine.com  make sure to include how/if you want to be named/linked.

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