"See the smoke?" I ask The Hubby, pointing at my head.
He stares at me blankly. Like in all marriages, there are times we find it impossible to communicate. We don’t speak the same language — and I don’t mean his English to my Spanish, either.
"You don’t see it?" I insist. "You really don’t see me overheating?"
He gulps, then ventures, "Let me run out and play in traffic."
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And so ends another attempt to explain an affliction I find alarming, namely because it’s happening to me more often. After too many hours in front of a computer, after a long session of reading, writing and editing, it’s easy for me to imagine black smoke swirling out my ears. I’m sure my brain is firing up red sparks caused by too much effort, too much stress, too much work.
Recently I found out there’s a name for this: cognitive exhaustion. It’s what happens to your thinking and reasoning ability when your brain has been running on overdrive for too long. The fatigue, however, affects more than my brain. I often walk away from a long session at my desk feeling as if my body has been plowed over by a tractor.
I’m tired. Dog-tired. Worn out, depleted, spent.
Surely I’m not the only one who, after a day of little physical activity, longs to do little else but veg. I find myself wanting to talk to no one, wanting to stare at nothing. The idea of sitting still, in silence as gathering twilight provides a protective blanket, has become so attractive. And comforting.
It used to be that taking a walk across the hall or looking away from my monitor for a few minutes while sipping strong coffee was enough for me to restore and redirect. That pause button, however, no longer works. A fried brain apparently needs more than a few minutes.
Yet, mental breaks are increasingly difficult to grab in a 24/7 go-go world. If I’m not doing something — reading my email, checking Facebook, answering a text, browsing my news feed — I feel like a slacker. I worry I’m missing something. But guess what? Lots of people are similarly shackled. The demands for our attention are endless, the competition for our focus fierce.
Then again we’re guilty of giving that attention too freely. We think that taking a breather means exchanging one screen for another. We equate rest with even more stimulation. Yet creativity is nurtured in the nothingness. This is why some of our best ideas arrive in the shower.
I suspect a certain kind of cognitive exhaustion occurred way back when, but surely it wasn’t as prevalent or protracted as the 21st Century strain. Modern life, in all its varied splendor, can be overwhelming. Too many choices — temptations, really — force us to constantly swim upstream in the formidable current of information. No wonder my brain, my overworked brain, feels like it’s on fire.
Our ancestors were on to something when they anointed one day the Sabbath. They recognized the necessity of retreat, of catching one’s breath. Our minds need a generous swath of time to unplug from the pressure of survival, be it hunting for food or hunting for clients. There’s a certain wisdom to taking a step back or to putting life on hold. It’s the kind of perspective that comes only after the smoke has cleared.