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​ADHD & Technology: Brain Hacks and Upgrades

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Mike Cavaliere was doing well in his career as a software developer. However, he felt like there were things that were harder for him to do than they should be. Eventually he found out he had Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) . Cavaliere presented at QCon New York 2016 the strategies he experimented to improve his brain over the years.

ADHD is often described as a false condition, whereas the rate of new information and technologies are blamed for lack of attention. While digital technologies create an environment prone to distraction, ADHD has been proved to be an actual medical condition. The brain hacks and upgrades Cavaliere presents are beneficial for everyone, with or without ADHD.

Brain hacks are short term strategies leading to quick results. They aren't long-lasting, and are therefore required to be done regularly. On the other hand, brain upgrades are permanent or at least long-lasting improvements. However, they require a significantly more investment in time or money.

Cavaliere presents his approach to brain improvements, which he compares to a startup. In a startup, it is hard to know beforehand if a new feature will yield good results. This uncertainty motivates incremental approaches such as implement, measure, and review. He recommends this approach for brain improvements because while they are usually backed by neuroscience, they don't work for everybody.

Brain Hacks

Brain hacks are strategies and tricks to reduce distractions at multiple levels. Reducing distractions leads to better concentration, which in turn leads to increased productivity.

Visual Distractions
Visual distractions are caused mostly by motions. Movements of people passing by, especially in an open space, can disrupt attention. Likewise, a disorganized desk also creates distractions. Minimizing motion distractions can be done by having your desk face a more organized area or by putting something in place to block the view.

Auditory distractions
Noise cancelling headphones are an effective way to block external sounds. They come in active and passive variations: the active ones, when turned on, emit a sound to cancel ambient noise.

Even the best headphones can have difficulty cancelling voices due to their uneven nature, and music can be used to solve this. Music with no vocals works best, as otherwise words may draw your attention and disrupt concentration.

Social distractions
Social distractions may be caused by co-workers, family or pets, depending on whether one is working in an office or remotely. The phone also falls into this category. Conventional techniques to deal with these situations include:

  • Do not disturb mode for phone and chat
  • Headphones rules
  • Remote work day
  • No distractions period

Digital Distractions
Digital distractions include push notifications, desktop notifications, app sound effects, social media, etc. Do not disturb mode is also a good strategy when possible. Otherwise, closing everything causing distractions or turning them off is the best way to remove digital distractions. Some applications such as RescueTime can also help by tracking time spent on each distraction and by closing a distracting website after a period of time.

Internal Distractions
Daydreaming, worrying and sensual distractions like itching or vibrations are all examples of internal distractions. There are no hacks for this category.
Mindfulness can work wonders; by noticing your sensations, you are better able to handle and dismiss them. 

Brain Upgrades

Brain upgrades are long lasting improvements of the brain. Such changes are possible due to the ability of the brian to change and adapt, known as neuroplasticity.

Vipassana Meditation
Vipassana meditation is an immersive practice of 10 days of meditation. It builds up a lot of impulse control, which is particularly handy for ADHD people. It also helps reduce anxiety and improves self control.

Neurofeedback consists of measuring brain waves and using that information to correct brain functions. Neurofeedback therapy can be done at clinical centres as well at home using a neurofeedback headset.

Integrated Listening (ILS)
Integrated Listening is a multi-sensorial approach to train the brain. It consists of vibrating headphones combined with various exercises. The effects can be multiple:

iLs trains for brain/body integration through a staged approach, starting with the fundamentals of sensory integration and then extending through more complex cognitive functions, including language, self-expression and social skills.

More details on the techniques Cavaliere describes can be found on his blog, where he shares his experience with each tecnique. His presentation will be available online along with the other QCon New York 2016 presentations over the next three months.

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