Writing From the Right Side of the Stall

Carefully curated musings (um, okay, rants) about the writing life, horses, bitterness and crushing career disappointment. Fun, right?

My Brain Hurts

Like I needed more reality checks in my life.

In my continuing career-re-invention quest (horse writer, bad; health writer, good), I signed up yesterday for a one-day workshop on epigenetics for journalists, hosted in downtown Toronto by the CIHR (Canadian Institutes of Health Research).   I didn’t really have a clear plan as to where I was going to use the material from this seminar — but hey, they had assembled a crack team of speakers, the location was accessible enough, and it was free.  With lunch.

(See my previous post about feeding journalists, a can’t-miss strategy.  Seriously, you could live-trap and relocate the lot of us with a tray of sandwiches and some oversized cookies.)

Once upon a time, I was an undergrad biology major.  I spent eight to 10 hours a day in classes, scribbling reams of notes — I remember one botany class, in particular, which generated 15 to 20 pages of single-spaced foolscap per lecture — and it didn’t faze me in the least.  But admittedly, it has been a while.  (Shuddup.)

While I’m admitting things, I’ll also admit that genetics was never my strong suit.  Loved the microbiology, thought the invertebrate zoology was dandy, grooved on the afore-mentioned botany, liked doing the field studies in the ecology courses (there was some project which involved mapping out a square metre in an endangered grassland area and then counting the number of beetles, or seeds, or voles or something within that square), but found genetics a bit of a struggle, even though it was at a very, very basic, Mendelian level.  My usual luck prevailed:  My Drosophila tended to keel over before they could produce their F1 and F2 generations, and even when they didn’t, they didn’t really breed according to plan or produce the characteristics they were supposed to (big wings, vestigial wings, curly wings, red eyes, white eyes, googly eyes, and so forth).

Since those (ahem) hallowed university days, I have had to tackle the topic of genetics on a number of occasions in articles for horse magazines.  Lesson #1:  Very little in Real Life is Mendelian.  In other words, simple dominant, simple recessive, predictable percentages of traits in each generation:  hardly ever happens outside a lab full of fruitflies (and sometimes not even then).  Genetics is way complicated, with combos of genes all tag-teaming to cloud the picture and muck up your diagrams.  Which I guess explains why you can’t breed a palomino to a palomino and get little palominos, but doesn’t explain why anyone still maintains a breed registry for a colour which is not directly heritable.  Don’t get me started.

Still, the topic (genetics, in case I lost you somewhere there) has always been sort of heavy wading for me.  Okay, not as bad as organic chem, which I failed twice before I finally managed to squeak through  …  just never could wrap my head around the carbon-chain stuff (though, in looking back, I also have to credit a prof who would clearly have rather been disemboweling wombats than have been teaching this dreary second-year course in a windowless basement).  But something of a slog.

Nonetheless, the topic of epigenetics intrigues.  And that’s typical for me; lots of stuff I have no natural talent for, intrigues me anyway, contrary wench that I am.

For the uninitiated:  epigenetics is the study of how environmental factors influence the way genes do, or do not express themselves.  It’s fairly new stuff, though the term has been hanging around since the 1940s.  Maybe I should say its acceptance is fairly new stuff.

Epigenetics is a separate deal from mutation, which is an actual alteration/addition/deletion of base pairs on the DNA strand.  In epigenetics, the DNA sequence remains the same, but the environment influences whether the genes produce proteins which influence changes in the organism, or fail to produce them.  See?  I was paying attention.

But the workshop did prove to me one thing:  as far as paying attention goes, evidently I am not as good at it as I was when I was 20.  Okay, not exactly a fucking revelation.  But still, sobering.  Despite diligently caffeinating (something I am actually not in the habit of doing when I work at home), and despite finding the topic engaging, I really had to force my brain to focus on digesting this material.  It did not do it of its own accord.

And while my brain was wandering off down unexplored corridors for the umpteenth time, it occurred to me that attention spans, in general, may not be what they used to was.  It’s Facebook‘s fault, of course.

I started thinking about my work habits, when I’m working from home, and realized that I seem to function best when multi-tasking.  Which might just be putting a polite spin on saying I allow myself to be easily distracted.

I generally have a couple dozen tabs open on my web browser.  Some of them directly related to whatever article I am currently writing. Some not so much.   So I’ll write a couple of paragraphs, then go check my Twitter feed.  Look up a definition or flip through my notes to see how I’m going to cobble in a quote from the Authority Du Jour … then open up Photoshop and edit a couple of photos I’ve had in the queue.  Go back to the article.  Get stuck on a phrase for a minute, and go see how many hits the damn blog has gotten today (ugh, biggest time-suck of all).  Go back to the article, but then think of something I have to add to the grocery list. Go back to the article.  Write six or seven paragraphs in a row and then play a game of solitaire as a reward.  And wash, rinse, repeat.

All of this has evolved fairly organically along with the options available on my computer (as in, I’m pretty sure I didn’t have that many distractions on my Atari or my 486).  And the thing is, it works for me.  It’s entirely possible I’m severely deluded, of course, but I believe with a certain amount of religious fervour that I’m actually more productive working in this manner, than I am when I force myself to be single-minded and concentrate on one thing at once.

It is not lost on me that this style of working doesn’t go over particularly well in the corporate world, where there’s a firewall on Facebook and to spend 30 seconds mindlessly moving Scrabble tiles around while your brain tries to pick the tangles out of some work-related problem, is tantamount to treason.  Despite all the lip-service acknowledging learning styles and celebrating individuality, there always seems to be someone who’s deeply offended if you’re not exhibiting exemplary drone behaviour.

And it didn’t serve me all that well when I was thrust back into a concentrated, lecture-style learning environment, as I was at this workshop.  As I say, I really had to work to stay focused and wrap my head around the concepts … and I was pretty much knackered by the end of it.

Still, I had enough neural activity at the end of the day to ponder the wisdom of the cohort of behaviourists who maintain that women are hard-wired to multi-task.  One fairly famous experiment (this is not something that came up in the workshop — it’s just something that I read, years ago, which has always stuck with me) had test groups of women and men listen to an audio recording of voices reading two (or was it three?) different stories, with the voices all overlapping.  Afterwards they were asked to reiterate the content.  The men, almost invariably, had ended up zooming in on only one of the stories.  They could recount that storyline, but had registered nothing of the others.  The women, OTOH, had gotten the gist of all of the stories.  The explanation, I guess, is that we’re designed to be able to forage for berries and beat the laundry on a rock, while simultaneously keeping one ear open so that our F1 generation doesn’t get eaten by a sabre-toothed whateverthefuck.

Sounds kinda epigenetic, don’t it.  I wonder what the methylation profile is.

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3 thoughts on “My Brain Hurts

  1. Interesting stuff, and nicely written. Corporate jobs are so linear and creativity is so …not. That’s why design-by-committee is always such a disaster, I guess.


  2. James R. Wirshing on said:

    I sure do agree that the drone-like behavior is what gets emphasized in corporate environs.


  3. cdogzilla on said:

    For as much as I had to look up the words I didn’t understand (no college level biochem for me) I enjoyed the post. Even though I’m not keeping up on it, the fact that there are brighter folks than myself out there working on studying all these processes gives me the warm fuzzies about us a species. (And that’s often a hard feeling to come by.)


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