Clumsy

January 20, 2011 at 3:24 am (By Amba)

If I hadn’t read this set of symptoms in a book on grieving, I might think I was coming down with a neurological disease:

Bewilderment, confusion, indecisiveness, clumsiness, forgetfulness, inability to concentrate, a reduced attention span.

I am so unbelievably disorganized.  (I only notice this when I am home alone, back from distracting and engrossing visits, trying to take care of business.)  I stagger around here, tripping over my own feet, completely defeated by mounds of unsorted papers, unable to find documents I could swear I put away carefully, unable to remember what I just set out to do.  All tasks, regardless of size and urgency, seem to have the same bland proportions, so I can’t prioritize, I can’t put them in any kind of order or hierarchy.  I mean, I do — I get things done — but it’s a senseless, blundering process, like wading blindfolded through a warehouse full of empty cardboard boxes.

Today I suddenly got why this is.  God knows I’ve received enough education, here and here, to put the pieces together.  It isn’t only emotional.  It is, in a sense, neurological.

I’ve lost my habits.

Given the high energy cost of running the prefrontal cortex, the brain prefers to run off its hard drive, known as the basal ganglia, which has a much larger storage capacity and sips, not gulps, fuel. This is the part of the brain that stores the hardwired memories and habits that dominate our daily lives.

“Most of the time the basal ganglia are more or less running the show,” says Jeffrey M. Schwartz, research psychiatrist at the School of Medicine at the University of California at Los Angeles. “It controls habit-based behavior that we don’t have to think about doing.” . . .

The interplay between the basal ganglia and the prefrontal cortex helps explain the resistance [to change]. . . . Doing [something] the way [you’ve] always done it draws upon the basal ganglia and burns less fuel than making a change and involving the prefrontal cortex.

What this passage doesn’t quite capture, but what I’ve read elsewhere, is that the basal ganglia are not only incredibly pervasive in our lives, but incredibly good at running things.  Not all habits are bad.  In fact, getting actions down pat and then hooking them to the brain’s automatic pilot enables us to function smoothly, gracefully, and efficiently much of the time, and frees up the prefrontal cortex to deal with novelty, beauty, and trouble.  The habit system is what we call “second nature.”  How almost unconsciously you drive a car (usually coming off autopilot in an instant if there’s a threat), how briskly you run through your daily routines, how nimbly you navigate the familiar terrain of your house and neighborhood (probably tending to take the same paths day after day), are all examples of the huge role habit plays in our functioning.  Unconsciousness gets a bad rap, but you really wouldn’t want to try to drive a car on the highway with just your conscious mind.

I could intone “Habit is a good servant but a bad master,” and talk about bad habits and addictions and our power to break them (the subject of Dr. Jeffrey M. Schwartz and Rebecca Gladding’s forthcoming book You Are Not Your Brain), but that’s another post.  This one is about clumsiness, disorganization, and grief.  Are you starting to put the pieces together?

Fortunately, I’m not trying to drive a car with just my conscious mind.  Driving and editing are among the few activities in which I still feel competent and collected.  I don’t want to do anything but work because that’s the one place (other than behind the wheel) where I still have a sense of mastery and orientation.

Getting around my apartment and neighborhood, through my errands and my day, on the other hand, are all new.  I have no habits that aren’t bent around taking care of Jacques, and those habits are now useless, severed, their loose ends trailing on the ground and tripping me, often into wells of pain.  Here’s where I used to . . . this is when I used to . . . The emotional part of it is that relationships, once they settle in, are about habit, and habits are about relationship.  There’s safety and familiarity and companionship and an almost sacramental ritual repetition in the routines you share with or perform for the other person.  You inhabit those habits, and all you need to be conscious of is how comfortable and dear they are.  When they’re gone, they are much of what you miss and the way you miss the other person, the way he or she is built into you. 

Then there’s the neurological part.

I am trying to get through my days without habits. That’s why I’m getting through them so badly.  My prefrontal cortex is really cranky at having no routines to rest on and rely on.  It doesn’t want to handle all those petty decisions itself any more than the head of the household wants to mop the floor or the CEO wants to do the filing.  For years my life was organized by the imperative urgency of taking care of Jacques and, if I ever did anything else, rushing it so I could get back to Job One.  Outside of work, I have as yet no other driver or organizing principle for my actions, no governor on my time.

So, like a beginning driver, I lurch around spasmodically, in fits and starts, grudgingly and intermittently putting my skittish thoroughbred prefrontal cortex to the brute task of mapping out workable pathways and rhythms — making lists, having “bright” ideas like “Clean out one drawer a day.”  It doesn’t help that this is not going to be my home, this place strewn with the raw ends of amputated habits like downed live wires.  Any structures I set up will be strictly temporary, soon to be struck like circus tents.

It certainly is a time between.

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31 Comments

  1. chickelit said,

    One of those twitter feeds I “subscribe” to tweets bites of twisdom: “Habit is like a cobweb at first which then becomes a strong cable” (or something like that). I think the saying is translated from Chinese because it comes out sounding like a clumsy fortune cookie. It probably sounds better in the original language.

    Sounds like right now you are between strong tethers of habit. Enjoy the freedom!

  2. mockturtle said,

    I know precisely what you mean.

  3. amba12 said,

    chicken, that’s the problem — it turns out we are only “free” when our attention doesn’t have to be taken up with how to get from point A to point B, or even what point A and point B are going to be today!

    P — of course you do, sweetheart.

  4. wj said,

    The good news is, you do build up new habits over time.

    It is in some ways analogous to a teenager who has lived at home thru high school, and is suddenly off at college and on his own. I remember long ago having my mother quote something from the President of Harvard. (This was from an interview in the mid-1960s, IIRC)

    He was asked (in the midst of all college demonstrations and other excitements that were occurring at the time), “What is the biggest problem that you have with your students?”

    His answer, startling to the interviewer, was: “They don’t know how to go to bed.”

    Which is to say, the students had always had their parents telling them when it was time to go to bed. And without that, they didn’t know how to decide for themselves that it was time to do so. Perhaps others have had that experience — it wasn’t just that you suddenly had the freedom to stay up late which caused you to keep going until you dropped.

    Eventually, one learns new habits . . . but it can take a while.

  5. chickelit said,

    In the physical-organic chemistry parlance, “transition-states” are “free” and require no further energy to move forward or backwards. They are ephemeral in nature though.

  6. Ron said,

    Really aren’t we all ephemeral in nature? A fable, concealed by a myth hidden in a lie… (La Rouchefoucauld, I think?)

  7. chickelit said,

    Ron, I meant a moment more fleeting than an ephemeral lifetime.

  8. Emilie Babcox said,

    It’s so good to be able to articulate this. Doesn’t make it go away, but it helps. I had a friend whose husband was imprisoned (long story), and I found her one day soon after standing in an aisle of the supermarket, unable to move. She said she had forgotten how to shop. Didn’t know which aisle to walk down, what to put in the cart. I had to literally help her walk out of the store and then drive her back home. She apologized profusely, saying that she didn’t understand what was happening. She (and her husband) made a good recovery, I’m glad to say.

  9. amba12 said,

    I am glad to hear it.

  10. Randy said,

    When they’re gone, they are much of what you miss and the way you miss the other person, the way he or she is built into you.

    So true. Some find it hard to give up those habits as if the giving up means forgetting the departed. It doesn’t, of course, and sounds like you are doing well in this regard.

    It doesn’t help that this is not going to be my home, this place strewn with the raw ends of amputated habits like downed live wires.

    Perfect description! BTW, are you on-schedule for moving?

    It certainly is a time between.

    It certainly is. It seems to me that you’re doing a fine of job of traversing it.

  11. amba12 said,

    Fortunately I like to explore.

    God knows if I’m on track for moving — I have so much stuff to get rid of, and so much work to do.

  12. Randy said,

    Any chance of you coming this way in your explorations?

  13. amba12 said,

    One of these days! Maybe on the way to Australia in September??

  14. karen said,

    I hope you hang onto that book, amba. It’s like some kind of road map that will seriously help get you from A to B without getting too run down or lost, hopefully.

    When i saw this post, i connected it to the dream you had– and i feel your sadness is about feeling your separation from J so acutely, physically. Looking through pained glass… at least you do feel he is taken care of by people who must love him, maybe relatives, as you suggested.

    It’s a funny thought, but being Catholic, i can’t help but think this is your time of Purgatory– your in-between time of loss and rediscovery, of packing up and saying goodbye to NC and going ~back home~ to NYC. And of feeling such loss as to not knowing how to jump start your natural instincts in caring for yourself anew.

    Time. Love from friends and family. And patience w/yourself.
    And a prayer for luck– &for mockturtle, too.

  15. amba12 said,

    Looking through pained glass

    You’re a poet, Karen.

  16. amba12 said,

    Especially since that also evokes “through a glass darkly.”

  17. mockturtle said,

    “through a glass, darkly”, I Corinthians 13:12.

  18. karen said,

    “…and the greatest of these is love.”

    Absolute-ly, mockturtle.

  19. karen said,

    * and thank you, amba.
    Whenever you give me praise, i feel like the sun is shining:0).

  20. mockturtle said,

    And, BTW, amba, you still owe me a Coke! ;-)

  21. amba (Annie Gottlieb) said,

    That I do!

  22. The neuroscience of habits, and what happens when you lose some | Empress of the Global Universe said,

    […] From Annie’s post Clumsy: […]

  23. christopher witt diamant said,

    I have heard from my friends on the Path that it is alright to be consistent: just as long as you don’t make a habit of it….

  24. christopher witt diamant said,

    Dear Annie;

    I hope that you are still interested in writing the introduction tio my book “A City Not Forsaken”; I think you might find it answers the questions you have been asking everyone for the last 65 years with little or no success in getting some actual data about Our Generation that Explains Everything: which I do have; by the way; as this information was entrusted to me just for that reason: and that you might finally have your own questions answered; Gottlieb; hmmm God is there; no doubt..

  25. Proust, placebo & pinched nerves (APR Jan 2011-2) | Painfreeindia's Blog said,

    […] Given the high energy cost of running the prefrontal cortex, the brain prefers to run off its hard drive, known as the basal ganglia, which has a much larger storage capacity and sips, not gulps, fuel. This is the part of the brain that stores the hardwired memories and habits that dominate our daily lives. “Most of the time the basal ganglia are more or less running the show,” says Jeffrey M. Schwartz, research psychiatrist at the School of Medicine at the University of California at Los Angeles. “It controls habit-based behavior that we don’t have to think about doing.” The interplay between the basal ganglia and the prefrontal cortex helps explain the resistance [to change]. . . . Doing [something] the way [you've] always done it draws upon the basal ganglia and burns less fuel than making a change and involving the prefrontal cortex. Why and how maladaptive habits might be established in persistent pain. More.. […]

  26. louisemowder said,

    I grieve for your losses. You have lost so much besides the physical, emotional, mental and perhaps spiritual presence and constancy of the man you love. You also have lost large parts of your definition of Self, of your daily occupations, an even of the habitual gestures and actions that made you *you.*

    It’s almost like a betrayal of your shared love to rebuild those portions of yourself again without him. It may also seem like a hard, pointless slog to go through all that work, only to inevitably descend into old age and dust.

    Is the joy of learning only vouchsafed to the young? Can you find pleasure in rebuilding those habits of Self? Or can it only be joyful when those new habits are not built on the ashes of other habits you never wanted to lose, ever?

    How can we find the joy of making new, supportive, health-bringing habits, when we are still open-wounded or cauterized by deeply burning pain? Or will those habits acquired thusly always be “maladaptive”?

  27. amba12 said,

    It’s almost like a betrayal of your shared love to rebuild those portions of yourself again without him. It may also seem like a hard, pointless slog to go through all that work, only to inevitably descend into old age and dust.

    There’s a lot of truth to that. Renewal feels like betrayal, although renewal is of the ruthless nature of life, which goes relentlessly on, until it doesn’t. If you’re alive, renewal will be forced on you until you give in and get with the program. It’s not only that renewal is betrayal (it really isn’t, because the dead would, with rare exceptions, want us to live), but renewal can’t measure up. J really was extraordinary, but someone you love is always extraordinary to you and you can’t imagine you’ll ever find their like again. And you won’t, you’ll find something different, which can’t help but seem inferior when you don’t even know yet what it will be.

    If you’re alive, though, you have no choice but to keep moving with time. At first you feel like you’re stumbling forward under protest with a gun in your back, but eventually you probably get the knack of it.

  28. louisemowder said,

    I agree that Life seems relentless, and almost ruthless, in its drive to continually force renewal upon the living world. But that view of Life makes it an impersonal force – at least, it’s impersonal in its treatment of *us*..

    Stepping back from our own spot-in-time viewpoint, we can see it another way. The push of the Universe towards Life, renewal, forward motion, change, and rebirth makes the Universe appear positive, supportive, Life-affirming.

    “If you’re alive, though, you have no choice but to keep moving with time.” Absolutely right, because we are in the Universe, and possession and control of all of Time is one of the fixed features of the Universe. If the Universe is God, this would explain how God could be “Omnipotent, Omnipresent, Omniscient, and Eternal.” While we are in this body, we will always be subject to Time. We are brain-utilizing consciousnesses, fixed momentarily in a specific body, always moving forward through Time. How do we use our greatest gift – our brains – to deal with this “Time and Change” motion of Life. ? Because it is that constant Motion that is the source of our pain.

    How do we develop habits and responses that give us the strength, the faith, the love, the energy to survive even the greatest losses – of a once-in-a- lifetime beloved mate (as you are enduring), or of a precious, cared-for child? To deal with extraordinary physical or emotional pain? To recover from loss or abuse or destructive injustice and isolation? Emerson said, “It is only the finite that has wrought and suffered – the Infinite lies stretched in smiling repose.” How do we remain connected to the Infinite?

    I believe that we can and must develop *habits* that keep us connected to the Infinite. I suppose meditation is one of the core approaches, used in civilizations from the beginning of time to remain connected. Physical disciplines, such as tai chi or yoga or qi gong, bring us that connection. Making love to one’s beloved, or holding one’s child, a pure conversation, or working with or singing with, a group – we know the connection to the Ultimate and Truth that we find there. What other methods have you learned? I am always searching for more.

    However, once we have discovered the truth through these methods, we do not need to continually repeat them in order to relearn the Truth or re-establish the connection. What we need to do is to *remember,”> We have to prevent our own distractions from diverting us, the way a mouse-stalking cat can be distracted by a fly.

    There must be habits of mind that can do this. What *we* are charged with is developing the techniques based on what we currently know about brain function and neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the single greatest and most hopeful scientific discovery of our times. As you know, it can accomplish great things in all fields of human endeavor.

    What can that knowledge do to change the prospects of grieving? If you even had a program to help you develop new “replacement habits,” would you use it? Would you be better starting such a renewal practice out of a natural inclination, or because you were instructed to, in some way?

    Jacques is in more than your memory; he is in your ery cells. The experiences you’ve had with him have developed neural pathways throughout your CNS. Your orgasms have irretrievably altered the pathways in your spinal cord. You will never lose him; he is literally inside of you.

    At the same time, he is gone. You are right; he would want you to find joy again. Can we develop habits that will let us find joy and yet keep fresh that cellular connection to the loved one that we treasure so much?

    You could develop a program of habits like that – that utilize neuroscience to create positive habits leading to renewal after grief.
    You could save a million souls from despair,

    I love your blog, and I love your philosophy. I especially love that you are willing to interact with your commenters. Thank you so much for responding to me.

  29. amba (Annie Gottlieb) said,

    What other methods have you learned? I am always searching for more.

    DANCING!

    I went to read YOUR blog, and discovered you just started it! How great.

  30. CJ said,

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! It was as if I were dictating (verbatim) that article to you. At last, I have found that I’m not the only person going through this uncontrolling, exhausting, and annoying condition. Bless you…

  31. Proust, placebo & pinched nerves (APR Jan 2011-2) | Pain Free India said,

    […] Given the high energy cost of running the prefrontal cortex, the brain prefers to run off its hard drive, known as the basal ganglia, which has a much larger storage capacity and sips, not gulps, fuel. This is the part of the brain that stores the hardwired memories and habits that dominate our daily lives. “Most of the time the basal ganglia are more or less running the show,” says Jeffrey M. Schwartz, research psychiatrist at the School of Medicine at the University of California at Los Angeles. “It controls habit-based behavior that we don’t have to think about doing.” The interplay between the basal ganglia and the prefrontal cortex helps explain the resistance [to change]. . . . Doing [something] the way [you've] always done it draws upon the basal ganglia and burns less fuel than making a change and involving the prefrontal cortex. Why and how maladaptive habits might be established in persistent pain. More.. […]

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