What is wrong with my brain?
December 17, 2012 2:33 AM   Subscribe

For as long as I can remember I've had a difficult time understanding and absorbing verbal information, especially long-winded information without being given an outline first. Do I have a learning disability? Low IQ? ADD? Auditory Processing Disorder? Is it just the depression? I intend to talk to my therapist about this, but I'd like to read other people's thoughts and experiences before I talk to him.

I'm also a slow thinker and a slow learner. Although I have managed to fool a few people that I'm intelligent, including my therapist, I feel like I'm working with half the brain capacity as everyone else to reach the same result. Even when I'm able to meet people's expectations (or my own), the effort to learn or do something seemingly simple to everyone else is immensely draining.

After years of struggling with low self-esteem because of this, I discovered much to my relief that I'm able to understand and absorb verbal information after all when I turn the subtitles and descriptive narration for the blind (when available) on while watching a video lecture, a documentary, a cerebral film, or even the occasional fast-paced action flick. I find rocking back and forth or pacing while listening to long lectures helps me concentrate and focus as long as I have the option to pause the lecture every 15 minutes for a break. I can absorb information in text only if I find the subject enthralling, and I can follow directions just fine via text message or e-mail. I can articulate my thoughts somewhat coherently in writing when I'm not pressured by time. Take all these options away, and I'll stumble in a fast-paced world I can barely keep up with.

I have not been diagnosed with ADD, but I was prescribed Ritalin (40 mg) as an add-on for my anti-depressant. I took it for over a year before my brother passed away—before the grief exacerbated all these issues—and I'm not sure that it helped.

I would like to identify what the issue could be, so I can discuss this with my therapist, learn ways to work around it, and be able to explain this problem to people who expect me to work at the same pace as everyone else. However, there are many factors involved, which could explain my aforementioned difficulties, thus making the problem hard for me to isolate.

Other factors:

• Childhood history of undiagnosed depression, severe anxiety, and selective mutism.
• Treatment-resistant depression.
• Social anxiety, these days stemming from social ineptness.
• Childhood history of abuse, neglect, and years of forced and self-imposed social isolation.
• Intrusive thoughts about my physical appearance, my intelligence, the events surrounding my brother's death, and other unpleasant subjects.
posted by Cdr Sara Bellum to Health & Fitness (18 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Ever had your hearing tested? I don't hear very well in the frequency people talk and it makes listening to people talk difficult.

I can hear bats and dog whistles and all kinds of useless high pitched stuff really well. But speech is a huge challenge. I mess with the audio on my tv and it helps but you can't do that in real life. If I have a cold or I'm wearing a hat or there's background noise I can't hear a damn thing.
posted by fshgrl at 3:04 AM on December 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

I can't take in verbal information very well. I was told I was a kinesthetic learner, meaning I need to physically do something to take in complex information. In high school, if I really wanted to learn something, like biology, for a test, I'd have to go through the chapter and create an outline of the facts in the chapter.

I don't think I'm dumb. I'm just primarily a writer, myself, when I want to think something through, and reading and listening aren't the same thing. It does make me feel a little challenged in meetings, and I have to take more notes than others.

People take in information differently. I also have the world's worst sense of direction and I wonder if it's related. Like I get lost in offices on a regular basis; it's very easy for me to get turned around and I've noticed other people don't seem to experience that quite so much.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 3:26 AM on December 17, 2012 [10 favorites]

Although I have managed to fool a few people that I'm intelligent, including my therapist

By the way, I seriously doubt this. Is your therapist some kind of buffoon? You're intelligent. It shows in your writing. You're intelligent.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 3:28 AM on December 17, 2012 [14 favorites]

Depending on which theory you are talking about, there are either three, four, or eight different learning styles. Here is a link to a picture of the eight learning styles (the theory I prefer). If you do a search for "determine learning styles", you'll find a number of quizzes to determine the best way you learn.


posted by rakaidan at 3:55 AM on December 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

The fact that you struggle with long-format textual information is somewhat buried in your question but I think an important piece of evidence. You might look into the concept of "working memory"--which is basically our ability to take newly inputted information and hold onto it long enough (a few seconds or less) in order to process it, manipulate it, and store it. You might look to see whether a deficit in that aspect of cognition makes sense in terms of the difficulties you experience. Deficits in working memory are sometimes associated with ADHD, and it can certainly be affected by trauma, stress, and depression as well (both recent and developmentally).

Intelligence is a really broad concept, and cognition is made up of so many different components and processes. A shortcoming in one area certainly doesn't make you unintelligent! Anecdotally, based on testing using Weschler tests, which measure "intelligence" as comprising 4 different main subscale factors) I've got a 40 IQ-point gap between my working memory (poor, ADHD-related) and my processing speed: if I were a computer, I'd have a really powerful processor, but completely inadequate RAM. My son was the exact opposite.
posted by drlith at 4:34 AM on December 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

You can be both intelligent and have a learning or processing disability. As a child I tested as very intelligent, and I have ADHD, which makes it very difficult for me to take in verbal information in many contexts.

Here's the other thing: childhood abuse and trauma can affect our ability to learn and take in information in calm, safe situations, because our brains become primed for high levels of input and fear. Our brains develop funny.

That DOES NOT mean that you are doomed to a life of miserable failure or anything like that. It means you have a disability that might need accommodation.

In addition to accommodations, I've also found myself thinking about careers based on my strengths and what works for me. I like travelling, physical activity, being outside, interacting with people (but not customer service as such), and research. Thinking about what your strengths are and keeping that in mind when you look for jobs will help you immensely.
posted by the young rope-rider at 4:52 AM on December 17, 2012 [7 favorites]

Get your hearing tested, as fshgirl suggested, as a precaution. However, your hearing is probably fine.

I did very well in school but as I've gotten older, wow, can I identify with you. Law school nearly killed me (long winded lectures, ugh). I recently took an online course with a lot of lecture with tangents, and had to drop out because I just couldn't follow it. Fortunately for me it was completely optional and wasn't graded.

I definitely do better with written instructions OR learning by doing than I do by someone telling me what to do without my doing it at the same time or rambling on about what seems to me like God knows what. Math/science/stats courses were actually easier for me because someone was always writing something on the board that I could SEE, then we would do the work of solving the problem.

Is it ADD? Maybe. I don't take anything for it. I don't think you need a formal diagnosis - I think you just need some ways to put into practice what you've been able to learn about yourself. (By the way, capacity to observe and learn from observation, which is what you did by noting ways in which you were able to learn, is a hallmark of intelligence.)

Some coping strategies:

1) Take notes as your supervisor/instructor speaks. If they are going too fast for you, ask them to slow down or repeat. Trust me, in an employment situation a good manager would rather have you get it right even if they have to repeat things. If they consistently berate you for being slow, they're not a good manager - find another job. See point 4 below as well.
2) Rewrite the notes if you have to. THIS IS HOW I GOT THROUGH HIGH SCHOOL AND COLLEGE. Only recently did I realize that not everyone has to do this in order to learn and retain information.
3) Take breaks as needed. At work, just say you need to visit the restroom if you are getting overwhelmed.
4) If anyone gives you grief about being "slow," just tell them that you learn slowly but once you learn something, you don't forget. You are the tortoise in a world of jackrabbits, but you know what happened to the rabbit in that race.

I also think you have excellent observational skills, which can help you greatly in certain areas. I'm a software tester, which requires noticing things that other people might not. I'm not sure that would suit you - the information firehose gets turned on quite a bit - but it's something to consider.
posted by Currer Belfry at 5:27 AM on December 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm sorry you struggle with this.

None of the information you've presented is going to help anyone here answer this question, because it cannot be answered without some in person evaluation and testing. All of the things you mentioned as possibilities are possibilities. Most of them require testing to confirm or rule out.

If this is something that troubles you you should consider getting a battery of tests designed to measure academic aptitude, learning style, and whether there are any specific learning disabilities present. Even your therapist is unlikely to be able to answer this question without recourse to screening tools.

I will say that your intelligence seems well within the normal range based on this small writing sample.
posted by OmieWise at 5:55 AM on December 17, 2012

I have both ADHD and Meniere's disease. This means that not only do I have very little patience for people who cannot verbally GET TO THE POINT IMMEDIATELY, but I also have difficulty actually hearing them at times: sometimes my hearing is muddled such that I have trouble distinguishing one voice from a bunch of background voices, and sometimes my hearing feels painfully acute such that voices seem too loud and horrible and I hate everyone.

tl;dr maybe get your hearing tested and get evaluated for an attention span disorder. You're not stupid, you're thoughtful and articulate. And work on the depression, whether it's meds or therapy or both.
posted by elizardbits at 6:14 AM on December 17, 2012

I am the same as A Terrible Llama, and I don't think I'm stupid at all. However, I only like learning things by reading, tune out of any long 'talking' (even though I talk a lot), absolutely only hear the first part of directions before giving up, and my friends think I'm joking when I can't get from Point A to Point B in my hometown, despite having grown up there for the first 20 years or so of my life. Why does everything have to be a learning disability? People are different, that's what makes them interesting.
posted by bquarters at 7:14 AM on December 17, 2012

I feel like I'm working with half the brain capacity as everyone else to reach the same result.

Depression can absolutely make you feel this way. "Diminished ability to think or concentrate" is, in fact, one of the diagnostic criteria. I have a miserable time focusing when in the midst of a depressive episode - everything feels slippery and just out of reach. You may have a learning disability or something as well, but it's pretty normal to feel like a half-zombie when depressed.

Lots of neurotypical folks find that pacing helps them concentrate, and I think the only reason you don't see people rocking themselves is that it's less socially acceptable for adults to do in public. I am not an agitated person, but I literally cannot sit and pay attention without doing something with my hands. Knitting, or endless games of Bejeweled.

Talk to your therapist. I assume that (s)he has worked with depressed people before, and is in a better position than any of us to tell you what's normal and what isn't. Print out this question, if that helps.
posted by catalytics at 7:37 AM on December 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

> For as long as I can remember I've had a difficult time understanding and absorbing verbal information,
> especially long-winded information without being given an outline first.

More people share that problem with you than you (or they) may think and IMHO giving a large amount of information verbally in one hunk is a terrible way to present information. If I'm in a class where that's the teacher's style I can't do anything but scribble frantic notes with basically zero understanding (hence zero ability to ask intelligent questions during the class), just trying to get it all down and digest it later.

In Jerome Kagan's very popular undergraduate intro to child psychology class, Kagan spent the first twenty minutes of every class period writing out a detailed outline of his lecture on a huge three-panel chalkboard before he ever opened his mouth except to say "Good morning." Dead silence in the amphitheater-style classroom while a couple of hundred students copied down every word. When this phase was finished he could begin his talk and everyone could just listen and think; no one had any further need to take notes unless they actually thought of a question to ask afterwards--or (gasp) had an idea! Kagan's presentation strategy worked very, very well.

At this late date I honestly don't remember much about Kagan's theories of child development or what he thought of Piaget and so on. Yes I aced the course but it didn't become my field. I've got the notes somewhere, though, and with their aid I'm sure it would come back quickly if there were ever a need. But ever since then when I needed to give a class or talk about anything I have always, always done it Kagan's way and have been thanked for it many times.
posted by jfuller at 9:08 AM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

> Only recently did I realize that not everyone has to do this in order to learn and retain information.

But what a common strategy it is among a certain class of folks, namely those in some advanced degree program, and especially among those who are going to successfully complete the program and actually get the advanced degree.

1. take the notes--they may be pretty cryptic at this point
2. before the class memory fades, type up the notes--making them less cryptic and adding in other material you may remember or find in reading
3. carve up the notes into topic areas and likely large-scale questions important in your field (Oh ghod how much PCs help with this. Once it was done using lots of photocopies of your typescripts, and scissors, and sticky tape)
4. shortly (couple of weeks) before the written exams for your degree, boil each one of those topic areas and likely large-scale questions down onto note cards. Carry the cards with you everywhere, alternately looking at them to remind yourself what's on them and then looking way and remembering with just your brain. Careful, this phase is when you're likely to walk in front of that bus!
5. pass exams. In fact, blow them to f*cking Hell'n'gone.
posted by jfuller at 9:40 AM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have a similar problem, and I promise it has nothing to do with "innate intelligence" -- if you even believe in such a thing.

I can't just "take in knowledge", and I don't even understand how others can. I have a difficult time with all of the following :

1) Gaining an understanding of something simply by reading about it
2) Learning something by listening to a lecture
3) Understanding a complex process simply by hearing someone describe it

In order to learn anything, I have to "play around with" the knowledge to some degree. It has to be an interactive process, even if it's something I do on my own. I don't have any real explanation for it. I think my mind is just generally "busy", with lots of thoughts flying around. In order to understand something, I need to be able to clear my head and concentrate, which is something I can't just do on the spot. In general, I'm not much of a "quick" thinker; I'm perfectly capable of solving complex problems, but I require some time to go off on my own and ruminate a bit.

Again, this has nothing to do with intelligence. I have what could be described as a very challenging job, one that requires massive amounts of concentration and problem-solving ability. But I've found that I need to respect the way my mind works and find ways to use it to the best of its abilities.

My school experience

Problem : Couldn't learn anything from a lecture. Couldn't learn concepts just by reading a chapter about them. Studying was mostly a waste of time : at best, I would memorize a little of the knowledge, and then forget it right after the test.

Solution : I did my homework. All of it. Even homework that wasn't assigned, like the exercises at the end of the chapter. If I didn't understand a lecture, I went to office hours for one-on-one instruction with the professor or (more often) the TAs. Made the most of take-home projects, because this is where I would really shine. Basically, you want to make your learning experience as hands-on and interactive as possible.

My work experience

I chose a very hands-on career : software engineering. It's a discipline that rewards self-guided experimentation. If I want to understand a new concept or tool, I just start a small project that uses the new concept, and before long, I've mastered it. It works really well with me!

Problem : I still run into situations where people verbally describe complex processes and expect me to follow along.

Solution : I ask lots of questions! I involve a whiteboard, if possible. I'll even say, "Slow down, slow down! Now, let's start with the first concept you mentioned ..." This works with people who are good at explaining things. Some people are bad at it, so I'll just kind of smile and nod until they're done talking, then I'll go off on my own and research whatever they were trying to explain.

Anyway, my point is this : you're not stupid, and don't tell yourself that you are. You have a mind that works differently, but this world has room for all kinds of minds. You may even find situations you're better suited for than people with "normal" minds. You just need to be understanding towards yourself and find something that works.
posted by Afroblanco at 10:53 AM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

And just as a datapoint, I also have a terrible sense of direction. I wonder if this is A Thing? Either way, smartphones with GPS have been a blessing :)
posted by Afroblanco at 11:08 AM on December 17, 2012

I've always been very open about my difficulties parsing verbal information. Like others I compulsively take notes in lectures/meetings and rewrite/revisit the notes a lot. It's hard and I miss things but I make up for it by reading everything I can where applicable. I'm similarly plagued by anxiety/depression, something akin to PTSD and intrusive thoughts (but I don't have ADHD). I've never really connected the two - the verbal thing is just my learning style. I have excellent hearing but I have trouble understanding/coping if there are competing auditory threads - if the radio is on in the car, the window is down and my daughter is talking/singing, I cannot follow a conversation with my partner. When I am very sick/tired I have a lot of trouble following conversation even in quiet environments. If I'm emotionally stressed I can almost go into a meltdown/panic attack if there is too much noise and I'm expected to follow competing conversations.

To cope with that I rarely have the TV/music on unless I'm doing chores or actively consuming that media. My partner adjusts by always turning the music down/off while we talk, or not talking unless we're in a quiet(ish) environment. He tends to go to parties alone, and is not a dick about me going away during them (or disappearing for a while at them) and runs interference with his family about it. My family are still dicks about it but I just don't visit them as much.

My partner is similar but he very much needs to 'do' the thing he's learning, whereas I'm okay to just read. It looks like our daughter is very similar to him. And none of us are stupid - we just have our learning styles like everyone else.
posted by geek anachronism at 3:29 PM on December 17, 2012

Just to add how glad I am you asked this question. I'm like you (but I don't consider myself unintelligent - nor should you) and others in this thread in that I can't take in information verbally, and it's excruciating to pay attention to people when they talk (even though I talk a lot). I coped in school and now in work by touch typing every single word people say so I can either read it or search through it later.

Also, I cannot find my way inside buildings or outside.

Weird. I hope you take some solace in the number of people who share a learning style with you.
posted by mgrrl at 3:59 PM on December 17, 2012

My hearing loss was not diagnosed until I was 40, and explains a lot. My ADD was diagnosed at 50+, and explains even more. Get tested& get hearing aids if needed.

1. take notes. repeat your understanding back top people. ask people to repeat and/or clarify what they said.

2. It's not unusual. many people don't do well with verbal instruction.
posted by theora55 at 9:47 PM on December 17, 2012

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