Susan Grossey

My primitive brain

Usually I am a very focused person: I find it easy to shut off from outside distractions and apply myself to a project, sometimes for hours at a stretch.  But in lock-down, my ability to concentrate has all but deserted me, with the result that I am making glacial progress with “Gregory 1”.  This weekend, for instance, I managed to write just under six hundred words – and most of those weren’t very good.  And to judge from the writers’ groups that I follow, I’m not alone.  With all these empty days and weekends and no competing attractions like meals out with friends or holidays in exotic locations (or even just down the road), we should all be writing fistfuls of books – it should be like NaNoWriMo on steroids.  But it seems that many people are struggling with their concentration and cursing themselves for it – and then I found out why.

An article in the New Statesman (I’m not a regular reader; I was searching for help with “why can’t I concentrate” and came across this piece) explains it all.  This is the key paragraph: “The basic science you need to know is that your brain’s prefrontal cortex (a chunk behind your forehead) processes ‘higher functions’, such as critical thinking, inhibiting impulses and, crucially here, the ability to focus.  ‘The prefrontal cortex has got this built in genie that causes it to weaken with stress signalling,’ Professor Arnsten says, ‘whereas the related stress chemicals actually strengthen the primitive brain systems.’  So essentially, when faced with immediate physical danger, your prefrontal cortex shuts down to make way for the more primitive parts of your brain – the parts that can respond quickly and basically in order to protect you.’  And that’s where we are now: we’re all faced constantly with an invisible, ongoing, potentially deadly threat.  We can’t resolve the threat so our primitive brains remain on high alert – and our concentration (a higher function) is buggered.

In the past I have always maintained that the most efficient way for me to write is to do it in large chunks of time – a half-day or day – to give myself the best chance of becoming immersed in the time period and in the vocabulary that I need to write Sam and now Gregory.  But this system has obviously been scuppered by current events and my grasshopper brain, and so I can either accept that I’m going to spend hours sitting in front of a screen and ending up with six hundred words and a great deal of irritation, or I can adapt.  And I have decided that for the duration of this focus-stealing situation, I will instead aim to write for thirty minutes a day – no more.  I reckon that even I can concentrate for that long; indeed, I might even break it down into two quarter-hour sessions if I’m struggling.  With daily exposure I should be able to get back into the 1820s groove reasonably quickly, and to make sure that I hit the ground running I am going to finish each time in the middle of a scene, or maybe even in the middle of a

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  1. Graham Thomas Avatar
    Graham Thomas

    Dear Susan

    Sorry to hear about your writing struggles. I’m finding a similar effect on my usual love of walking. With all this extra time in recent weeks, it has been an ideal opportunity for a daily walk in the lovely local countryside but, for some reason that I can’t quite explain, it has become a lot harder than usual to get motivated. It’s then made worse by the fact that I know a lot of people aren’t as lucky as me to have such nice countryside on their doorstep. I bumped into a couple that I know the other day and they were finding the very same thing, as they also usually enjoy their walking much more than at present. Hopefully the fact that I can now travel a little further afield, and meet up with my friends for a walk (one at a time of course), will start to see an improvement. I hope your new mini writing sessions do the trick for you.

    Best wishes


    1. ihatemoneylaundering Avatar

      Hello Graham
      I find it comforting to know that there is a scientific/medical reason why my brain is so flabby at the moment – and to know that it’s not just me! It stops me worrying about it (which obviously makes it worse) and it means that I don’t have to scold myself for being “lazy”.
      I hope your lovely walks soon recover their usual savour – there’s so much to see in nature at the moment. I am completely unschooled, but I do enjoy spotting “pretty purply flowers over there” and “feathery tree thing up there”!
      Best wishes from Susan

  2. Roy McCarthy Avatar
    Roy McCarthy

    You’re not alone Susan. There’s a host of projects I could have at least started, stuff I could have written. A friend of mine, proud of her lovely home, confesses she sees things needing cleaning but she ‘can’t be bothered’. I honestly think that enforced inactivity just shuts down our engines rather than redirecting that energy.

    1. ihatemoneylaundering Avatar

      I have woken full of resolve today – I am determined that this situation will not stop me doing what needs to be done! Eight weeks is quite long enough for a blue funk. After all, if that brave fellow and top father Dominic Cummings can drive hundreds of miles while actually in the throes of the virus, surely I can write a book while perfectly well!

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