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When I started at university I could perform with a fresh mind all of the time -- doing a problem set all weekend without reduced performance. A couple of other students and myself seemed to be several times faster and have larger working memories than others. I made quick work of my studies.

Now that I have gotten to the ripe old age of 22, I seem to be in perpetual brain fog, and even coffee does not bring me back to my original abilities. This disturbs me because I want to go to graduate school.

What do you professors do (especially those who do mostly research) to keep your brain able to function near peak for 40+ hours a week? Are you simply stupider than you were at 18 but abuse coffee and persist in your research anyway?

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    What scares me is that some of the older students who have been in the "real world" for a while complain of the same symptoms, which includes somewhat slowed thinking and reduced retention of studied materials. It seems to be related to stress? – bigmoney Jun 26 '15 at 1:43
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    I suspect a lot of this is perception bias, I know the stuff I worked on when I was 18 (looking back from the ripe age of 25) was simply easier and i had more time, and I had often seen it before. So looking back I may have seems more productive. Alternitively, being a in a perpetual brain fog could actually be serious medical issue. It is the symptom of several illnesses (both psycological and physiological) As a joking answer: What do professors do? Have young smart PhD students and postdocs. :-P – Lyndon White Jun 26 '15 at 1:50
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    @Oxinabox Yeah I wasn't really productive at 18, I was just always ready and felt rested, so the few hours I put into studying and thinking in class went a long way (both in terms of grades and titillation). I probably should look into increasing my health. – bigmoney Jun 26 '15 at 2:01
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    There seem to be some downvotes, but I think the question is just asked in the wrong way. (Then again, this is probably what downvotes are for). Instead of asking "What to do to keep your mind sharp" to which you probably know the answer already (do some puzzles, e.g. brilliant.org has many of them); You actually want to know if it is normal that you feel like you are underperforming. @jakebal gave an excellent answer below, and I know of some friends and colleagues that have been in the same place as you. I also had to learn this the hard way. – HdM Jun 26 '15 at 2:55
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    I've had the same experience and come to the conclusion that while what jakebeal says is part of it there's also an element of loss of control. As an undergrad I'd just nap in the lab whenever I got tired, I'd normally work really late in the evening, I had no other commitments. A few years later it's unseemly to sleep at my desk and I have to maintain reasonable working hours rather than doing most of my work at night. Though I would advise reserving caffeine for emergencies. It's not a help long-term. – Murphy Jun 26 '15 at 17:24
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A very important thing that took me most of graduate school to understand is that my self-perception of "getting dumber" was not caused by actually degrading abilities, but by a qualitative change in the type of work that I was trying to do. I discovered this through a passage of despair, when I felt so brain-fogged and useless that I decided that I was going to simply ignore my thesis for a few days and work on a meaningless side project instead---which I blazed right through at the rate I remembered from undergraduate days, because it was all much simpler and more well-defined than doing research.

In undergraduate education, one may be working very hard indeed, but the type of work is also extremely specialized in an unusual way. In particular, almost all of the work that you are called on to do in your courses (undergraduate or graduate) is:

  • Designed to be accomplishable within a fixed number of hours
  • Tightly dependent on the most recent things that you have learned

This puts a huge (and hidden) amount of constraint on the search space for answers: in essence, if you have learned good "student meta-skills," you are likely to be very good at picking the right place to go searching for your answers. When you stop taking undergraduate classes, this skill becomes largely irrelevant, and you can start feeling like you are much "dumber" simply because you're thinking that progress on poorly defined and unbounded problems should come at the same rate as progress on pre-digested course work.

I would thus say that the first and most important thing to do is to come to this understanding, that the types of skills you now need are qualitatively different than the ones you most exercised as an undergraduate. Digesting that may cure your concern right there.

Beyond that, my basic recommendations are simple:

  • Do things that you are interested in.
  • Let yourself read, but also make sure you write and do technical work.
  • Keep a record of all of your accomplishments, so that you can look at external evidence of non-failure when you're having an imposter syndrome day.
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    +1 for ' my self-perception of "getting dumber" was not caused by actually degrading abilities, but by a qualitative change in the type of work that I was trying to do'. The more you learn, the more you realise how little you know, and the dumber you feel! – mhwombat Jun 26 '15 at 12:11
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    This is spot on, not just in academia but in pretty much everything post-education. – Lightness Races in Orbit Jun 26 '15 at 23:38
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    For some of us, spending a bit of time answering questions on various SE sites is a constant source of "meaningless side projects" for when the real work seems overwhelming... – Floris Jun 29 '15 at 12:24
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    tldr; "Research and advanced studies are hard. Of course they hurt your brain." – hBy2Py Jun 29 '15 at 13:09
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    I think there's a pattern in every discipline where your skill level and your ability to see your weaknesses improve out of sync - so you go through unhappy troughs where your standards rise faster than your skill, and overconfident spikes where your standards rise slower than your skill. A painter made a great chart and blog post about this, and over on the graphic design site I've got an answer expanding on it which in some ways might apply here – user568458 Jun 29 '15 at 13:21
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As an IT professional at age 32, I have struggled with similar issues. I disagree with other commenters that it is simply perception bias. I have found myself unable to complete tasks that I was previously able to complete with ease, unable to remember or retain information, and exercising incredibly poor judgment (on par with being intoxicated).

For me, at least, it was a combination of issues.

  1. Fatigue. I was diagnosed with severe sleep apnea that had been causing me to near-awaken several times per minute all night long due to a involuntary choking reaction that flooded my system with adrenaline and raised my heart rate. This left be drained and exhausted in the morning, and definitely interfered with my brain function. Fatigue is a major cause of human error and can definitely produce "brain fog". Even sleep debt caused by missing a few hours of sleep each night over a period of time can cause severe fatigue.

  2. Information Overload. As we get older, our scope of responsibilities increase. When we're young and in school, usually school itself is the single biggest (or only) major responsibility. Our decision-making power is finite, and when it runs out, our judgment will start to lapse (see decision fatigue). For me, at least, an overload of information and decisions can swirl around in my head, making it difficult to focus, and shortening my attention span.

  3. Relationships. As we get older the number and depth of our relationships increases. Managing social interactions has been shown to stimulate more of the brain than almost anything else -- in short, it's mentally exhausting.

For me, here is what helped the most.

  1. Sleep. Get 7-9 hours of sleep every night no matter what. One thing that helps is to wake up at the same time every day (even the weekends) and then go to bed as soon as you feel tired. If you feel the quality of your sleep is lower than it should be, or if you're tired and feel un-refreshed when you wake up, consult a doctor and/or sleep specialist. If you are male, overweight, or your collar size is equal to or greater than 17 inches (43 cm) you are at risk for sleep apnea and should be checked.

  2. Recreate, especially outdoors. Make sure you are getting adequate downtime/decompression time. Playing video games is not adequate recreation as it requires constant decision-making. Try an outdoor activity with limited stimulus such as hiking, biking, or even just walking.

  3. Meditate. Even 15 minutes of meditation every day has shown to physically change the structure of your brain, increasing folding. It may also help stave off age-related brain degeneration, even Alzheimers disease. It is simple to learn basic meditation techniques, and it certainly helps me control the "swirly thoughts" problem from information overload.

  4. Get some alone time. Don't isolate yourself, but make sure you get 30-60 minutes of time alone every day. This can help you clear your mind, and also depressurize from relationship-induced stress.

  • Thanks. Your answer seems perfect for my issues... I try to be active in terms of sleep, recreation, meditation and alone time. For me the hard part is the ones you said first: fatigue, information overload, relationships. I am having a hard time handling them ... – Swagatika Jun 26 '15 at 22:48
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    This is great advice. I've always intended to follow it, but have never managed more than miniscule parts of it. :( – Lightness Races in Orbit Jun 26 '15 at 23:45
  • +1, "Playing video games is not adequate recreation..." – NewbieProgrammer Jun 29 '15 at 5:58
  • I have to disagree with the outdoors comment. I make more important decisions, some that can literally cost me my life, when biking compared to smushing thousand demons per second in Diablo. – Davor Jun 29 '15 at 10:05
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    @ChrisCirefice - oh gods, yes, no PvP to rest. I usually end up wanting to actually murder someone after a game of DotA. – Davor Jun 29 '15 at 19:23
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Don't neglect or minimize the basics:

  • Good sleep, esp. regular hours (avoid alcohol in evenings, no caffeine after noon)
  • Exercise
  • Steady, healthy diet
  • Time for fun and social engagement
  • Stimulating/challenging conversations and debates with people you respect

Bonus:

  • Meditation
  • Yoga
  • Brain games

P.S. I am a 57 year old PhD student. "22" is neither ripe nor old. :-)

  • Thanks for the support. Yeah even though I'm not a big partier I think I've accidentally fallen into some of the same pitfalls of a party lifestyle... I think most of the damage can be undone though as the optimism here shows. – bigmoney Jun 26 '15 at 4:14
  • Thanks for the support. Yeah even though I'm not a big partier I think I've accidentally fallen into some of the same pitfalls of a party lifestyle... I think most of the damage can be undone though as the optimism here shows. Do you have any advice for keeping things light during work hours? I do better if I keep a playful spirit but this seems increasingly to be in bad-faith... PS: 22 could be ripe but only for someone who studied hard as a baby. – bigmoney Jun 26 '15 at 4:23
  • Have you noticed any phenomonological changes in your mind since your teenage years? – bigmoney Aug 3 '15 at 23:14
  • The most obvious is that I now have a poor memory for people's names. I can forget a name 2 minutes after someone tells me. I'm more patient and methodical now. I'm much better at writing, especially involving complex lines of reasoning. But I'm not as fast at some things, e.g. solving puzzles. – MrMeritology Aug 4 '15 at 1:24
3

Let's not make any bones about it. There's plenty of scientific evidence to show that your intellectual skills will diminish as you age. The question is when this becomes noticeable. Again, I think it's pretty common for people to notice this by their 30s (only anecdotal advice for this).

I think 22 is far too young to notice any degradation; I would get a brain examination if you are truly concerned. Probably you are just imagining this. If you can't do specific tasks you could do before, eg solve endgame problems 1-50 in such and such book, then you know for sure. Unfortunately that's how I and friends have noticed (much slower at doing very specifically defined intellectual tasks that we could do effortlessly before).

Enjoy your 20s. You ain't old yet.

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    Right. In your 20's you're not old - you are likely getting too much alcohol, too much visual stimulus (video games, "screens" everywhere) and not getting enough sleep. – Floris Jun 29 '15 at 12:26
  • Not too much alcohol. Everyone knows that's poison for the brain. – bigmoney Jun 29 '15 at 19:01
1

It's usually a matter of stress and interest. In courses that I had no interest in it was harder for me to learn anything. Even if I had read a paragraph and was asked a simple question about that 1 paragraph I couldn't answer it.

Stress can also slow your learning curve. While you do lose memory capacity and learning ability as you grow older, the effects don't really set in until about 45(ish)

  • Could you cite that last statement about learning ability? – Lyndon White Jun 26 '15 at 2:31
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    I also find that stress is one of the main causes of any "brain fog" that I experience. That and lack of sleep. As for learning ability decreasing with age, my anecdotal experience is that it improves with age and experience. I suspect that it's a "use it or lose it" effect; I've never stopped learning, so my learning skills never got rusty. – mhwombat Jun 26 '15 at 12:13
  • @mhwombat That is encouraging. What do you think of your creativity? One issue is when I get tired/stressed my brain will just try to recycle old thinking patterns instead of really engaging the material (of course i do not know to what extent tired is isomorphic to old) – bigmoney Jul 21 '15 at 5:40
  • @bigmoney yes, stress affects my creativity as well. Normally, when I am stumped by a problem, I'll have a few ideas of how to approach it within an hour or two (perhaps after a short break). But last month I went through a stressful period, and when I encountered a tough problem, I couldn't think of any ideas for a week. That made me realise just how stressed I was. So from now on, when the flow of ideas starts to slow down, I'll look for ways to de-stress. – mhwombat Jul 21 '15 at 9:47
0

You can compare your brain to your computer. Your computer must be hooked on a power supply for it to work properly, you brain is connected to the rest of your body which provides it with energy. But if your body isn't physically fit, your brain will have less energy available.

To optimize your energy levels, make sure you get plenty of exercise: at least half an hour of running about 4 to 5 times per week for someone your age. If you are not fit enough to run, you should gradually build up your fitness so that you can exercise at this level in the future. This will improve sleep, you'll be eating a lot more without gaining weight, so you'll take in a lot more vitamins and minerals. This will all help you to have a lot more energy, which will benefit your brain a lot.

  • do you think that you get a marginal benefit from running as opposed to walking? I am healthy enough to run (when I was 300 pounds I was stubborn enough to run when I had a reason). But running is not a "sacred cow" of mine. – bigmoney Jul 21 '15 at 5:43
  • @bigmoney Running burns a lot more energy than walking, you need to make sure you metabolism is increased. E.g., I weight less than half of what you used to weight (yesterday's measurement: 56 kg) , yet I eat 4000 kcal a day. So, the amount of nutrients I get from eating all the food that I do per unit body weight is this a lot more than average. This means that the amount of nutrients each cell in my body can get per day is a lot more. E.g. there is more magnesium available which is important. – Count Iblis Jul 21 '15 at 16:02
  • #CountIblis I see. Yeah when I was that big I was only consuming 4000 Calories a day, or a little less even though I was also powerlifting. I guess you could say my metabolism was/is on the slow side considering. – bigmoney Jul 21 '15 at 17:16

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