Unstuff my brain
March 2, 2006 3:49 PM   Subscribe

How to reset my brain after long reading sessions.

I'm horribly behind in reading for school, and I'm trying to play catch-up this week. After two or three hours of reading, however, my brain just shuts off. I'll go for a walk, flip on a movie, eat dinner and other such mindless activities, but I'm still unable to focus once I return to the reading. I usually can't read again for several hours and sometimes not even until the next day, which is, obviously, counterproductive. I don't drink caffeine for anxiety reasons, so that's out of the question. Does anyone have suggestions for a reset (besides not falling behind in homework)? After the 2-3 hour timeframe, my head has a nearly tangible full feeling, like an overstuffed pillow.

Thanks for any advice. (If it matters, the same thing happens with most casual reading, too. I'm a big fiction reader, but I'm still unable to read more than a couple of hours at a sitting.)
posted by Zosia Blue to Health & Fitness (37 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Should've added that I do take breaks while I'm reading, whether to stretch or relax my eyes, so I'm reading in 2-3 hour increments, but with several small breaks built in.
posted by Zosia Blue at 3:51 PM on March 2, 2006

Would a nap help? I must admit, I've never experienced this phenomenon... I read almost continuously between my job and my hobbies, and I never feel like I'm having problems absorbing info... I guess there are times when I just don't feel like reading is what I want to do, but forcing myself is always an option...

Can you desscribe your sensations any further?
posted by chudmonkey at 4:07 PM on March 2, 2006

Response by poster: Naps do help, actually. They're just not always practical, unfortunately.

I'll read a sentence and it'll take me three or four times to understand it as opposed to when I first begin a reading session and can fly through the material at a high comprehension rate. Forcing myself to work through it only seems to make everything worse. It's not necessarily a distracted feeling, but more a "tired muscle" sensation, with my brain being the muscle.
posted by Zosia Blue at 4:12 PM on March 2, 2006

Where are you reading? You say you are in school, so have you tried going to the library to get your reading done? I know I have a much harder time with my reading if I am at home, near any distraction.

Just find a nice quiet desk in the stacks somewhere and read away (without music, I might add) and take frequent breaks. Also take breaks to review what you've covered, either by writing a quick outline of the section/chapter or by reviewing the notes you take while you write. All of these things combined let me get a good 6-8 hours of reading done a day (when necessary), although keeping up that pace for too long gets to be hard.

Hope that helps.
posted by Loto at 4:18 PM on March 2, 2006

Maybe you should read less in a row... like, say you know you have approx 6 hours of reading and 8 hours to get it done. Instead of reading until your brain quits and then trying to re-prime it, how about taking an extended break every hour or so to just think about what you've read (or not) and let your brain catch up?

And maybe a stimulant of some kind would help - instead of caffiene, some sugar?
posted by chudmonkey at 4:26 PM on March 2, 2006

I can't read at the library, for some reason the super quiet environment makes me fall asleep but I find changing my location helps me a lot. I switch between the coffee shop and my house.

It often helps me to switch up the subject matter that I'm reading. If you've got lots of writing or assignments it might help to work on something else for an hour or two between reading sessions. It might also help to try and tackle the subjects you know will be really difficult at the beginning, when you are alert, and leave the easier or more entertaining subject matter for the end.
posted by kechi at 4:36 PM on March 2, 2006

Try taking 1.5 hour naps after 3 hours of reading?
posted by mhuckaba at 4:37 PM on March 2, 2006

Response by poster: I'm reading Political Science, for the most part. That's a good point, about home distractions. I haven't tried to read too much at school, so I don't know if the same thing would happen, but it's definitely worth a try. Thanks. I think this would tie into chudmonkey's suggestion, too - at home, if I take extended breaks, I tend to get tied up in other distractions around the house and the break turns into several hours. Short reading outside of my apartment might be a good solution.
posted by Zosia Blue at 4:38 PM on March 2, 2006

Have you tried exercise? Something more intense than a walk: jogging, stationary bike, etc. This may recharge you. It will give your brain a time to get away from rapid processing (TV doesn't work, because even if it's "mindless", your brain still has to figure it out), and it has other nice side effects.
posted by grumblebee at 4:38 PM on March 2, 2006

Response by poster: On preview - unfortunately, the bulk of my reading this week is all the same topic, so I'm getting hammered. I think the earlier suggestion of writing an outline after each chapter is a good idea - that way, I break up the medium (writing vs. reading).

Thanks for all the suggestions so far.
posted by Zosia Blue at 4:39 PM on March 2, 2006

Response by poster: Grumblebee - I have tried going for runs or short walks, but I come back with more energy and am less inclined to want to sit down and read. I do feel more alert, but I'm more inclined to do something physical, as opposed to reading.
posted by Zosia Blue at 4:41 PM on March 2, 2006

i'm in the same place, except cramming up on astronomy. seems like breaks to metafilter help. :)
posted by kooop at 4:42 PM on March 2, 2006

Try taking some time off to doodle, or exercise, or do something that actively stimulates another part of your brain.

Failing that, pop these.
posted by Astro Zombie at 4:56 PM on March 2, 2006

I come back with more energy and am less inclined to want to sit down and read.

Um. Get over it and read anyway. Sorry, I'm not trying to be rude. But I doubt you'll find any solution that doesn't involve the need for a bit of discipline.
posted by grumblebee at 4:57 PM on March 2, 2006

Response by poster: That's not really helpful, grumblebee. I'm self-disciplined enough, but I'm trying to set realistic goals for myself for optimal comprehension. If I could just "get over it," I wouldn't be asking for advice, yes?
posted by Zosia Blue at 5:00 PM on March 2, 2006

Response by poster: When I rule the universe, there will be a long, long moratorium on paragraphs that begin with "Um," and "Sorry, but..."
posted by Zosia Blue at 5:02 PM on March 2, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks, Astro Zombie, that's what it feels like - I need to do something that stimulates a different part of my brain, and gives the reading part a break. I'm not much of a doodler, but something along those lines seems to be what I'm looking for.
posted by Zosia Blue at 5:04 PM on March 2, 2006

Sorry, I'm trying to be helpful. I guess I was thrown by your "not inclined to" language. Whenever I'm reading something not-for-pleasure, there's always self-discipline involved. Are you really saying that after a run you're incapable of hitting the books -- or are you saying you can do it, but it's not what you want to do? If it's the latter, then I don't think you're being realistic.
posted by grumblebee at 5:07 PM on March 2, 2006

Okay, if you crave brain stimulation that is different from reading/studying, how about puzzles: crosswords, soduku, etc.?
posted by grumblebee at 5:09 PM on March 2, 2006

Response by poster: No worries. It actually feels physically impossible for me to sit down and read after exercise. Whenever I've tried to sit down and force myself to read after exercise, I get the same "over full" feeling, as if my brain just won't absorb. On the other hand, now that I'm thinking about it, an hour or so after the exercise, I do have an easier time getting back into the reading as opposed to after a less rigorous break, so you might be on to something.
posted by Zosia Blue at 5:11 PM on March 2, 2006

Response by poster: And crosswords are a great idea. I think that would fulfill the instant gratification need that the reading doesn't. (As in, what I'm reading won't be used until several days later in a test/paper, while I can have a problem-and-solution situation instantly with the crossword.) Thanks.
posted by Zosia Blue at 5:13 PM on March 2, 2006

The reason I suggested exercise is that though it doesn't involve mental activity, it really wakes you up. I often do my best thinking post exercise, but -- you're right -- it's hard to sit still. Can you read while pacing around? I'm pretty good at this off activity, cause I used to have this five-mile walk to work, it was in the pre-iPod days, and I got through it by reading while I walked. I'm sure I looked really odd.

I still do it to this day. If I need to take notes, I make sure I have note paper on a high table and a pen tucked behind my ear. There's something invigorating about walking about, holding a book, and rushing over to the table when something in the book strikes me as noteworthy.
posted by grumblebee at 5:16 PM on March 2, 2006

Another idea: a super-huge, super-complex jigsaw puzzle.
posted by grumblebee at 5:18 PM on March 2, 2006

Response by poster: Ooh, I actually read really well walking around. Because I'm so behind, I've been reading on my way to classes, and I've found that I actually read faster (while still understanding) while doing so. I might have to do some apartment pacing now.

And now I think I'll actually get off MeFi and try some of these suggestions.
posted by Zosia Blue at 5:20 PM on March 2, 2006

Great. By the way, do you know why I'm so interested in this thread?
posted by grumblebee at 5:23 PM on March 2, 2006

Quickly off the top of my head - I think your problem is that for your entire life, you've treated work like this, like a marathon.

You sit down, start, and keep going until you can't go any further.

Some of the suggestions above are great. Some others that have worked for me in the past.

1) Do not sit/work for greater than 30 min. Take a 10 min or so break for every period.
People who had trouble getting things done, started using 10+2x5 (10 min work + 2 goof off times five repeats per hour). This scheduled break is great...if you can schedule it.
It's better if you read an hour in the morning, an hour at lunch, an hour at dinner and an hour at night.

Mental "exercise" is just as difficult as physical. Quit trying to do it all at once....gradually. If you read 15 min/hour for every waking hour, you'd read 4+hours a day.

Increments are more important than "buckling down"

2) Reward yourself, every time you finish a chapter. Don't stop working mind you - if you intend to go for 30 min, and you finish two chapters, you get 2+ rewards.

3) Create a study group - this will force you to have some of grumblebee's discipline (way, way before the class requires it.) You'll know the material, because you've made a commitment to others.
No group? At least one other buddy will help you stay interested and motivated.

4) Quit trying to read every word - when in trouble, look at topics for each section and try and scan/create notes relevant to that section. It's the general concepts that are important - your note taking will reveal key details.

5) A Little meditation never hurt - for ten minutes do nothing. You'll struggle at it. But you'll be calmer and clearer headed if you do so. 2-3x a day are even better yet (especially helping with focus).
posted by filmgeek at 6:27 PM on March 2, 2006 [1 favorite]

I take notes.

I find that the mental exercise of dissecting the text to zero in on the few important bits of my reading provides a welcome, satisfying variation to the otherwise rhythmic work of comprehension reading. Instead of a few 5 minute breaks I'm taking dozens of mini-breaks to jot down a thought in the text itself or summarize the material in a notebook. Because of this habit I've never had to re-read material to review for a test and I'm able to concentrate on the reading for 8-10 hours at a time.
posted by xyzzy at 6:54 PM on March 2, 2006

I am in exactly the same boat. (Poli Sci test tomorrow.) My plan is to read for a couple of hours while taking notes and then break for about forty five minutes. This is my break and I'm on minute 42.

No real advice, just good luck. :)
posted by youcancallmeal at 7:07 PM on March 2, 2006

Try a different input port: get some material as an audio book. If there aren't enough available, record some of your own from your print books.

Some people are much better audio learners; you just might be surprised.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 7:21 PM on March 2, 2006

I agree with the crossword idea, but you may find Sudoku to be a better mind cleanser. You can get completely stuck on crosswords and your mind will wander. With Sudoku you keep thinking about where the next gap into the puzzle is.
posted by TrashyRambo at 7:51 PM on March 2, 2006

I find just futzing arounf and cleaning up my apartment helps too. Because I get so bored cleaning up me apartment, I'm eager to get back to the task at hand. I spent the whole day doing it, and wrote 1/3 of a play today.

Of course, I also paused for metafilter, American idol, and Internet porn. And the porn was the most boring of all!

Apartment's pretty clean, though.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:52 PM on March 2, 2006

I have two suggestions:

A very specific nap, one not longer than 20 minutes, can be a great reset. The trick for me is to force myself to think dreamlike thoughts as I lie back, and I can nap pretty quickly (I don't know why this does not work for actual sleeping).

I like Astro's suggestion of cleaning. When I have a lot to read at home I set up specifici breaks (by chapter or page number) that occur before the point of total saturation. I set myself a specific task to accomplish and I go do it. There is something about cleaning, in particular, that seems to make me feel more organized in my mind as well.
posted by OmieWise at 8:47 AM on March 3, 2006

I would suggest adderall, or any other form of legalized speed. There is a reason more than half of college seniors use it for studying-- you might be surprised at how effective these drugs can be.
posted by petsounds at 10:08 AM on March 3, 2006

Is it possible you need an eye examination?
posted by onalark at 10:32 AM on March 3, 2006

Oh, and taking speed to study is a horrible idea. Don't do it.
posted by onalark at 10:33 AM on March 3, 2006

petsounds writes "I would suggest adderall, or any other form of legalized speed."

Just to highlight the obvious, adderall isn't legal if it hasn't been rx'ed to you. It's also not that great for creative thought, making connections, extrapolating ideas.

Also, and this might be more to the point, if you're not used to it you may not be able to settle down to work.
posted by OmieWise at 11:22 AM on March 3, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks - these are all great suggestions. Speed isn't my style, but everything else is definitely worth a try.
posted by Zosia Blue at 9:50 PM on March 4, 2006

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