I'm a space case!
August 3, 2005 1:08 PM   Subscribe

Today I was sitting with my boss, supposedly reading a very dry document on legal regulations on I.T. security procedures. He was sitting across from me filling in a spreadsheet. Suddenly, he looked up and said wooohooooo, is anybody there? He'd caught me staring out the window spacing out, with a blank expression on my face. Then he told me that he had noticed I zone out really often.

Obviously, "able to space out regularly" is not something I want to put on my C.V. But how can I stop doing it? And why do I do it? When I do it, it's because I've followed a train of thought that has nothing to do with my current situation, and so I appear 'blank' in the present. I think it's not a good look. I've always been like this. How about you?
posted by hazyjane to Health & Fitness (22 answers total)
This may be a symptom of a neurologic problem - either a partial complex seizure or a petit mal seizure. You should consult a neurologist.
posted by yclipse at 1:32 PM on August 3, 2005

Everyone zones out, especially when forced to do something boring. Is it possible there's something wrong with your work rather than your brain?
posted by walla at 1:38 PM on August 3, 2005

Although it's become a cliche, perhaps ADD? And if you do look into it, get tested by someone rather than simply visiting a credentialed pill dispenser. I was taking drugs for years before I took a test that actually measured my impulse control, etc. and it was painfully obvious that my brain was different than most people's.

/he said, cleverly turning his answer into a cheesy blog entry.
posted by mecran01 at 1:41 PM on August 3, 2005

I think yclipse is overeacting a little, hazyjane.

Let's start with basics: are you getting enough sleep regularly? Eating regularly? Getting some exersize? Not too stressed out? If yes, then it's time to start meditating. It is unbelievable how it can help your concentration! A while ago, I wrote up some simple meditation instructions, and I can send them to you if you like. Email's in my profile.

Also, you might want to look into taking ginko or even St. John's wort.
posted by Specklet at 1:48 PM on August 3, 2005

I've always been like this. I wouldn't worry about it. As a child I was taken to all sorts of specialists, in a later era I'd probably have been diagnosed Autistic. They (the doctors) haven't the faintest idea.

It comes and goes and you learn to live with it. Find a few funny tricks to pull if someone spots you doing it, make them laugh, end of story. Could it be that what's going on inside your head is a lot more interesting that what's happening outside? The fact that you're here suggests it might well be. Just asking.

On preview, what everybody has said, but if all the good ideas don't work, don't worry.
posted by grahamwell at 1:52 PM on August 3, 2005

Since college, I usually solve difficult problems that are frustrating me by zoning out and waiting for the solution to just 'click'. Not very useful when working under deadline pressure, but it suggests that there's nothing actually wrong with doing it. That didn't stop my teachers from yelling at me whenever I did it as a child.
posted by Eamon at 1:57 PM on August 3, 2005

Not everyone has a face that precisely mirrors the mental or emotional processes beneath. Hazyjane's expression while thoughtful is not what the boss thinks of as a "thoughtful expression."
posted by Morrigan at 1:58 PM on August 3, 2005

Could it be because you're hazy, Jane?

Seriously, the good thing about "blanking out" is that the boss, or anyone else watching, can't actually see what it is you're thinking about.

For example, you could have been staring into space as you wondered, "Could I improve on our corporate data warehouse architecture to enhance security AND usability, without sacrificing access times?"

Alternatively, you could have been joyfully recalling the copy of "Farmyard Frolics Monthly" you recently found hidden in the hollow tree out behind the office.

The point is, he doesn't know. Nobody does, except you. So your feeling of guilt and inadequacy is (in this case) misplaced.

Besides which, human beings all "space out" frequently, particularly those of us with an IQ above 60 and jobs involving spreadsheets.

Personally, I find that a well-timed, semi-humorous accusation of "spacing out" can be a very effective way of making an attractive, perhaps slightly over-anxious, female co-worker feel just a little bit guilty and eager to please.

Which is nice. :-))
posted by cleardawn at 2:01 PM on August 3, 2005

This may be a symptom of a neurologic problem - either a partial complex seizure or a petit mal seizure. You should consult a neurologist.


Anyway, I am not aware of anyone who pays attention constantly during boring work activities. This may be presumptuous, but if it's not affecting your actual work, just how others perceive you, your real problem is how to space out without looking like you're spacing out.

Alternatively, you could take notes about these ideas that become digressive trains of thought, rather that investing time in thinking about them. Learn to jot down the problem and then continue reading -- when you finish the document, go back and reread your notes, and cross off the stuff that sounds absurd to you now.
posted by Hildago at 4:19 PM on August 3, 2005

On reflection, moving beyond my earlier flippancy, perhaps the most appropriate response to a boss saying "Woohoo, anybody in there?" is a slow turn, eyes gradually refocus on the wormlike boss, and "I beg your pardon?"

...and let him repeat what he just said while you're staring straight at him with your best professional lawyer expression, and see how dumb he sounds.

Would he say that to a male employee, do you think? How about to his boss? Why not ask him?

Your thoughts (unless you have a very unusual contract) are your own, even at work.

Staring out of the window from time to time is unlikely to be forbidden by corporate policy.

Sexual harassment, on the other hand - including staring at you all the time to see if you're "spacing out" - probably is.
posted by cleardawn at 5:05 PM on August 3, 2005

I do this too. I'm a neurologist, by the way.

It's when you can't hear the first two or three calls of 'yoo-hoo, Jane', and then the fourth one gets your attention, that you need to see a me. Otherwise it's pretty normal just to be so attentive to a train of thought that your limbic system dampens all your current sensory imputs. This sort of hyperfocus is the kind of thing ADD people have trouble doing, so it's not really what I'd think of as a warning sign of that illness.if you believe that ADD is a discrete, unitary entity, which I don't. anyway.
posted by ikkyu2 at 5:05 PM on August 3, 2005

The live preview LIES. It LIES!
posted by ikkyu2 at 5:06 PM on August 3, 2005

I do this, and worse. When I'm bored, I fall asleep. At one extremely dull job I would regularly fall asleep 5-10 times a day. It was extremely embarassing. One time we had a meeting (about 20 people all crammed into a small room), where some Important Person took over an hour to explain something that should have taken 5 minutes. I nodded off.

Poor sleep habits, possible ADD, probable sleep-apnea... could be any one of those things in my case. On the plus side, I never have trouble getting to sleep when I want to (airplanes, bus rides with crying kids, etc.).
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:05 PM on August 3, 2005

I do this, especially when dealing with a lot of very dry/boring material (which a couple of my previous jobs involved).

If your work allows it, I found that either listening to music or some other streaming audio while working keeps the brain more occupied, so I'm less likely to zone out. Foreign language broadcasts, of all things, worked the best; the chatter was enough to keep the brian engaged, yet I didn't get distracted by the content, since I didn't know what was beind said. (FWIW, I'm probably the only person in the world with hours of CBC-Iqaluit's Inuktitut programming on my iPod for precisely this reason.)
posted by spinifex23 at 8:24 PM on August 3, 2005

I do it too. I always thought it pretty harmless, although sometimes I do it while driving, which scares me a bit. It can make for some funny situations (like a colleague asking me why I'm staring at his food so intently during lunch).

A friend told me it only happens to very intelligent people, if that helps! We were fifteen at the time so I don't know how much truth there is to it, but I always found it a pleasant thought.
posted by Skyanth at 10:36 PM on August 3, 2005

instead of buying some psych-black-kettle-hype, you may be an introvert and absolutely and perfectly normal. you dont need no soma.
posted by Satapher at 12:53 AM on August 4, 2005

yclipse is not overreacting at all, and "sheesh" is not a proper response to yclipse's comment. Your behavior absolutely could be evidence of a type of seizure. My best friend often behaves in a similar fashion, and after years of doing it was diagnosed as having a very particular form of epilepsy.

Ask other friends, acquaintances, and coworkers that you spend considerable amounts of time with if they have noticed similar behavior. If so, see if there are correlations between instances of said behavior. Durations, times, stress levels, actions during, blood sugar levels, nearness to period/pms of occurences, "clumping" of space outs, inability to receive input during episodes, etc. Maybe there are some consistencies from space out to space out. Epilepsy is one possibility. Epilepsy does not only come in shove-a-pencil-in-the-mouth, writhe-on-the-ground form.
posted by vito90 at 2:51 AM on August 4, 2005

Could it be a symptom of taking a boss's calculated and nasty little jibes too seriously?
posted by joeclark at 6:03 AM on August 4, 2005

Thanks a lot you guys. Actually, for once in my life I have a boss I actually like and respect, so I do take what he says seriously.

I don't think it's seizures as it never takes more than one "woooohoooo" to bring me back.

I'm glad to know this happens to other people too. I'll try the ideas to help focus and if that doesn't work I'll stick with the "it only happens to intelligent people" explanation :-).
posted by hazyjane at 11:47 AM on August 4, 2005

I get complex partial seizures, and I also space out randomly. For most of us who have seizures, it is an entirely distinct experience from "blanking out" - I get olfactory and sometimes visual auras, often briefly lose consciousness, and almost always have a period of confusion / aphasia (language loss) afterwards. I would absolutely not be concerned about neurological issues unless or until you have further symptoms.

"Blanking out" is something I do all the time because I get caught in a train of thought or have a little conversation with myself in my head (imagining someone responding to ideas I have, kinda thing). I have had people comment on it here or there, when I've had office jobs, but now that I'm in academia it's basically considered normal :).
posted by mdn at 2:15 PM on August 4, 2005

mdn: Your description of certain types of complex partial seizures is spot on, but in fact many epileptic people do have "absence" attacks that are distinguished by brief periods of unresponsiveness/unawareness with no aura or warning and no external sign. This doesn't feel like blanking out - it feels like nothing at all. The people don't know that they're doing it.

During this event, there's no getting someone's attention with an alerting maneuver, and they will not recall that maneuver.

Doesn't sound like that's ms. jane's problem, though.
posted by ikkyu2 at 4:34 PM on August 4, 2005

All I can really tell from your story is that your boss feels that you space out really often. This suggests two possibilities:
1) You look blank while you're thinking about something. In which case you can tell your boss "Sorry, I was thinking about this" and ideally have him say "it's good that you put thought into that."
2) You look blank while you're indeed thinking about nothing. In which case I don't have much to suggest.
Do you know which of 1) or 2) is the case?
posted by Aknaton at 8:34 AM on August 5, 2005

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