Saturday, September 3, 2011

If My Brain Worked on Wall Street, It Would Be a Billionaire

I don't know if you've noticed, but I've got ADHD on the brain these days.  Finding out that I have ADHD of the brain has sparked in me a serious interest in learning what it's all about.  So at the risk of boring all my friends to death, I've been doing a lot of thinking, and reading, and talking about it.  This interest is, in part, what inspired me to start this blog. 

Sometimes I feel a little self conscious about my blog.  I'm not an ego maniac.  To the contrary, people with ADHD often report low-self-esteem issues, and I've certainly battled a few of those myself.  I definitely  don't want to be seen as someone so self-absorbed and indulgent that she believes that there is anything particularly exciting about detailed stories about how messy my desk is at work. 

Yet I continue to ponder, and feel inspired to share messy-desk stories.  I will be the very first to admit that my disasterous, dysfunctional, hell-hole of a desk isn't fascinating.  It's as mundane as all the other messy desks in the world.  What fascinates me is the discovery that the messiness of my desk is the result of a process that is far more intricate and complex than just me simply being lazy or negligent.

In my reading, I've been coming across the term "executive function," quite a bit.  Researchers of ADHD/ADD talk about how the condition impairs "executive function."  My psychiatrist talked about this, also, explaining that my medication will stimulate my "executive functioning," whatever that is.  These same researchers explain executive function in scientific terms too advanced for my pay grade, as they say. 

But what I lack in professional psychiatric training, I make up for in my ability [compulsive urge] to extrapolate, so I think I get it.  The job of a CEO (chief executive officer), for example, is not really to "do" anything specific, but to make sure that others do what they are supposed to do.  Likewise the president of the United States is the chief executive of our country.  We'll hear people discussing politics complain about how a president doesn't  do anything.  Whether or not that's true is a matter of opinion, but as a matter of function, the president's primary job is, in short, to support and oversee others doing things.

Executive function in the brain, is, as far as I can interpret, essentially the same thing.  Executive function in the brain refers to the cognitive processes that regulate and support other cognitive functions that affect actions and decision making.  Executive functioning regulates how the brain applies past experience to a present situation, involving processes such as prioritizing, self-regulation, and various types of memory, for example.

A good example for illustrating this concept is the task of taking and passing an academic test.  In order to do well on a test, it is necessary for a student to know the correct answers to the questions.  But knowing the subject matter is not enough to ace the test. 

In order to pass a test, a student must be able to sustain her attention throughout the test.  She must be able to monitor the time available for the test and regulate her performance against that time to ensure that she answers all the questions before the time runs out.  When she encounters a question to which she's not certain of the answer, she may have to extrapolate the answer from similar situations she's encountered in the past.  If she's stuck on  a multiple choice, she must invoke her decision-making faculties to choose the best answer.  When things get tough, she needs to be able to control her emotions sufficiently so they do not interfere with her ability to concentrate and respond.  If she's called upon to write an essay, she will need to logically organize  and express her thoughts in a manner that clearly conveys to the reader her knowledge and understanding of the subject matter.  In short, when we break it all down, passing a test is far more complicated a task than simply regurgitating some learned information.

According to Dr. Thomas E. Brown of Yale University, research is revealing that ADHD is not simply an attention-related condition, but a developmental impairment of the brain's executive functioning.  In a newsletter article, Dr. Brown offers the illustrative analogy of a musical orchestra without a good conductor.  Separately, the violin and the flute and the tuba can all be performing spectacularly.  But without the executive functioning of a good conductor to bring all the individual musical elements together properly, the ultimate performance won't be very good. 

Well, thank you, Dr. Brown. That explains a lot.  I want to know much more about this, and will check out Brown's book as soon as I can.  But for now, I'll just say that this makes a great deal of sense and explains so much for me.

It explains my messy desk.  Cleaning a desk might sound like a simple task, but if I break it down into its elements, as with the test-taking example, maintaining a clean desk involves priortization, logical organization, memory, self-regulation and motivation, spatial reasoning. . .all sorts of executive functions.  No wonder I have trouble; as it turns out, the CEO of my brain is a bit of an underperformer.

In recent years, there's been a lot of public criticism of ineffective CEOs on Wall Street, who have been awarded with multi-million dollar bonuses as their companies collapsed, contributing to massive economic crisis in our country and througout the world.  Only in this context, it seems, is poor executive functioning rewarded quite so handsomely. 

It's really too bad I didn't take my dad's advice of getting a job in a bank instead of majoring in anthrolopolgy ("What the hell is 'anthropology' anyway?").  With executive functioning like mine, I could be rolling around naked in my undeserved millions right now, paying someone else to clean my desk.

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