Suzana Herculano-Houzel

I don’t know when to stop

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Another transatlantic flight, another six hours of non-stop work. Tied to a chair, with no options but to go to the toilet or grab something gluten-free from the tray served as a meal, with no emails, internet, messages, students or dogs and cats around my desk wanting attention, I write very well. What else is there left for me to do?

But this time the post-departure chat with the neuroscientist colleague next to me, commenting on the meeting we were both returning from and exchanging notes on our knowledge of autism, had left something in particular swirling in the background of my head. David Leopold is a researcher at the US National Institute of Mental Health, a specialist in sensory processing, and we talked, among other things, about the difficulty people on the autistic spectrum have in recognizing their own emotions. I went to the bathroom, he fell asleep, and I kept thinking about the consequences of this difficulty, and therefore, of course, the everyday functions of these emotions.

“Emotion” is a name that evokes something additional that adds color to life, but what the word represents is much deeper than that. Every emotion is a bodily, physiological, even visceral state that we associate with a mental state. I’ve noticed that people who know me know long before I do when I’m annoyed or irritated; I don’t realize it until the next day, and it’s only another day later that I usually find out why I’m uncomfortable.

The conversation made me realize that exhaustion is also an emotion – and my difficulty in recognizing its signs is both a superpower and a problem. I remembered the story in a podcast by Radiolab about the woman who became an ultramarathon runner after undergoing surgery to remove part of her temporal cortex to resolve epilepsy. In her words: as she now didn’t see time passing, she didn’t know how much time had passed, so she didn’t feel psychological exhaustion – and she kept running. That woman is me, and my marathon is my research work.

By now, I’d accepted that my work pattern isn’t a little bit every day: it’s what I can get away with between various tasks, and then a LOT every time I can take a few full days of concentrated work on a single topic, followed by exhaustion and then a day or two of recovery and complete unproductivity – which I’ve at least learned to enjoy without guilt. Once the marathon of the series of the day is over, with my brain switched off on the sofa, the exhaustion will have passed, and I’ll once again be dying to get stuck in again with one of the many scientific juggernauts I keep on the air.

Now I understand why. Some people don’t feel pain; I feel the physical pain, but not the mental pain of my neurons asking for quits except when they’re already falling apart. Whether that’s good or bad, I don’t know. All I know is that it works…

Originally published in Folha de São Paulo on July 2023.

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