Posted On: Saturday, 04 July 2015 by Rajiv Popat

What do you do you do when you find yourself sliding down the slippery slope of living an irregular life style where you have very little control over your own health and life? Or what do you do when you find yourself diagnosed with a disease that has the potential of killing you slowly and steadily if left completely ignored. What would you do if the doctor was to tell you in no-uncertain terms that you'd better change your life style or you will kill yourself in the long term?

Any sensible person with an iota of human intelligence would say - you change your life-style and do what the doctor is asking you to do. And yet, 9 out of 10 people who are given these warnings by their well meaning physicians return to their irregular life-style in less than 3 months and in doing so, choose death over change.

Change is hard; change is complicated and unlike traditional beliefs change doesn't happen by exhaustive use of will-power, which by the way is a limited resource to begin with. Change, is all about pattern recognition. As Nerds and computer programmers that should come naturally to us because pattern recognition is a part of what we do. Every time you write a loop in your code you've analyzed and found a pattern of instructions that can be repeated with variable elements thrown in the mix. Every time you write a base-class that a child class will inherit you've spotted a pattern. Every design pattern you use is in the right situation is a testament to your pattern recognizing brain. Recognizing patterns is what we do for a living.

If we can build systems that are powered by patterns and that run and control mission critical environments why can't we as geeks, see our own bodies as systems and take control of our own bodies and life-styles?

In his book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, Dilbert creator Scott Adams talks about his fight with Focal Dystonia:

My time windows for drawing were always compressed, which put a lot of pressure on my drawing hand. The overuse took its toll, and my pinkie finger started to spasm whenever I touched pen to paper, making it nearly impossible to draw.

I met with the doctor and he diagnosed me in minutes. I had something called a focal dystonia, common to people who do repetitive tasks with their hands, primarily musicians, draftsmen, and that sort of job. It wasn’t carpal tunnel. This was different.

"What’s the cure?" I asked.

"Change jobs," he said. "There’s no known treatment."

I walked out of the doctor’s office with my life demolished. My dream of being a cartoonist for the rest of my life was over unless I found a way to be the first person in the world to beat a focal dystonia.

What were the odds of that?

Scott goes on to describe his fight with the disease one round after another; for months; and how the disease seemed to win every round:

Realistically, what were my odds of being the first person on earth to beat a focal dystonia? One in a million? One in ten million? I didn’t care. That one person was going to be me. Thanks to my odd life experiences, and odder genes, I’m wired to think things will work out well for me no matter how unlikely it might seem.

At a follow-up visit, the doctor asked if I would be willing to try a few experimental treatments, joining some other human guinea pigs he was working with. I agreed. For weeks I tried various hand exercises, went to a physical therapist, tried meditation, galvanic skin-response feedback, self-hypnosis, and anything else that seemed like it made a grain of sense. Nothing worked, not even a little.

Meanwhile I tried to draw Dilbert left-handed, which I could do with a lot of effort. I’m mildly ambidextrous, but drawing is a high level of difficulty for the non-dominant hand. I could tell that drawing lefty wouldn’t be a long-term solution.

My drawings were extra terrible for a few months during that period.

I also tried strapping down my pinkie, but that had the odd effect of making the rest of my hand dysfunctional. And it hurt like crazy. I lost the ability to write simple notes using pen on paper, which was obviously inconvenient at my day job.

While the disease kept winning for months Scott, like any true nerd was trying hard to analyze the patterns of the disease. He tells his story of him trying to recognize patterns:

Oddly, the pinkie spasms happened only during the specific motions involved in writing or drawing. Otherwise my hand was 100 percent normal. Weirder still, when I drew with my left hand, the pinkie on my right hand would spasm, so obviously the wiring in my brain was the problem, not the architecture of my hand. My experience was consistent with the doctor’s research. None of the people who have focal dystonias seem to have anything abnormal in the structure of their hands. It seems to be some sort of short circuit in the brain.

And once Scott had started recognizing the patterns of the disease he set out to fight it by his very own little experiments:

At my day job, as I sat through endless boring meetings, I started practicing my drawing motion by touching my pen to paper and then pulling up before the spasm started. I tapped the page hundreds of times per meeting under the table on the notepad on my lap. My idea was to rewire my brain gradually, to relearn that I can touch pen to paper and not spasm. I was literally trying to hack my brain.

In the book Scott goes on to explain his on-going fight with the disease that was keeping him from being in profession he loved and how he eventually won the fight; not by will-power, not by positive thinking; but by systematically dissecting his own disease and persistently rewiring his own brain to overcome it. He explains:

Over the next several weeks I noticed I could hold my pen to paper for a full second before feeling the onset of a pinkie spasm. Eventually it was two seconds, then five. One day, after I trained myself to hold pen to paper for several seconds without a spasm, my brain suddenly and unexpectedly rewired itself and removed the dystonia altogether. Apparently I broke the spasm cycle and reinforced the non-spasm association.

And so I was the first person in the world to cure a focal dystonia, at least as far as I know. It’s entirely possible that I’m wrong about that, since I can’t know what everyone else is doing or what worked for them. Still, it was an unlikely result.

I went back to drawing right-handed, paced myself, and didn’t have a problem again for years. My hand doctor said I’m part of the literature on this topic now, although my name is not mentioned.

The book describes another fight that Scott raged with spasmodic dysphonia and how he managed to win that fight too using pretty much the same techniques.

I'm not suggesting that you try to fix your diseases yourself but as nerds, how difficult is it for us to see our body as a system, analyze and listen to the signals it gives us and dissect the underlying patterns? How difficult is it for us to hack our minds and re-wire our brains to cultivate habits of a healthier life-style? As nerds, when we can see our work life as a system with finite rules and we push those rules to their limits every day with our code, why can't we understand the patterns of our own bodies and push our own brains to their limits too? Are you overweight? Underweight? Struggling with obesity? High blood pressure? Diabetes? Cholesterol or... just simple stress? It's time to let the geek in you take charge; do the research and revamp your life-style to keep you fit, moving and above all --- happy. I wish you good luck.

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