Analysis (Services and Self)

Koan Bremner's view on life as a database and data warehouse professional / addict and non-genetic woman

Friday, April 08, 2005

Hamsters ate my brain

(Warning; techie analogy alert) So, this has been a pretty "interesting" (in the sense of the old Chinese "blessing", "may you live in interesting times") few months. My memory has been going haywire, and with it, my concentration, focus and ability to get things done. And I can't begin to describe how upsetting that has been. It was tempting to blame this on the huge doses of hormones which my body was being subjected to... except that the perceived wisdom is that, normally, HRT has precisely the opposite effect. So that didn't seem to fit. That raised the spectre of some other physical cause; we'll see. Meanwhile, I've formed a hypothesis as to what's been happening to me; the upside is that, if my hypothesis is true, then "the bitch is back!" :-) The downside, such as it is, is that I can't quantitatively prove it, but I can, qualitatively; so, I thought I'd float the hypothesis here, and see whether other minds than just mine think that there might be any mileage in this.

The starting point is recognising that males and females think differently. This is not an Earth-shatteringly new concept, nor one I take any credit for. Whether or not there are structural differences between male and female brains (and my understanding is that there are) then *how* women approach a situation seems characteristically different. One description I've read (espoused by the psychiatrist Simon Baron-Cohen) is that females have an "empathising" brain (looking at someone's thoughts, feelings and emotions as a means to identify and predict behaviours) while males have a "systematising" brain (which investigates, analyses, classifies and imposes structure; or, at least, tries to). When I thought about that, I realised that, really, I do both, and always have; but the *mix* is changing. Maybe the mix is changing as a result of the change in my body's hormone balance; or maybe the social and personal changes to which those hormones are contributing is allowing the historically-repressed female aspect to gain a greater dominance. Which, personally, I see as no bad thing; except for the impact it has had on my memory.

Now, I *know* that my perceptions are changing, continually; how I see, respond to and record the things I see around me has altered dramatically as I've walked (and, at times, stumbled) along this path of transition. And that has been paralleled by my urge to *record* those changing perceptions. I think that's why I was drawn to the idea of starting this blog; whether consciously or subconsciously, I knew I needed a mechanism to reflect the changes I was experiencing. Consciously, I was hoping that starting to write again would rekindle that creative element which had pretty much gone into hibernation; subconsciously, I think I needed to give myself permission to absorb what was happening. The bottom line is, whether my current writings are self-indulgent or not, they're serving a purpose *for me*.

Recently, I've been pondering whether my memory issues were nothing more than my subconscious mind telling me "something's out of balance in your life; face it and fix it". Something I've learned is that, while I may not always understand why I'm subconsciously driven to do things at the time, I usually work it out afterwards. If that was so, what was out of balance, and how to fix it? I'm increasingly convinced that subsuming my creative impulses into quite an ordered, disciplined technical profession was the problem. At least, it *looked* like the problem. Here's an analogy that might help.

Part of what I do, professionally, is design databases. Which I've always considered both science, and art. The science part is that if you don't follow sound rules of good design, you end up with an unholy mess. The art part is two-fold; sometimes, you need to selectively break some of the rules in pursuit of a non-obvious goal; and sometimes you need to use creativity to extract the gold from the base ore. I've always believed that I brought equal parts scientific rigour and insight / creativity to the endeavour. Well, a key element of a database is the raw data; and typically, we store it in a series of tables, which are an unordered collection of similar "things". Because typically we need to find things in a hurry, we need to try to impose some kind of order on that, and one method is to use indexes. Of which there are various types, for different purposes. (My work colleagues know that I stress index analysis as a key component of performance optimisation; and, I beg to suggest, I'm very good at it). The right indexes at the right time are the key. When needs change, what were once the right indexes may become more hindrance than help. At which point, defragment, rebuild or discard those indexes.

Hypothesis: as my mind has switched emphasis during my transition, the old indexes (which used to be optimal for my "systematising" brain) have become sub-optimal. My increasingly "empathising" brain required different indexes to make use of my memories; and so it has been busily reindexing.

Now, as my colleagues may remember, when you change the indexing strategy, the situation typically gets worse for a while (expecially if you add, remove or alter a clustered index). But what if, in addition to changing the indexes, we change the *type* of indexes (e.g. to full-text, or bitmapped); the end result is that the same rows remain in the table, but *how* you find them changes completely. Because those indexes are designed to support different kinds of queries.

I think my increasingly "empathising" brain looked at the indexing strategy that had served my "systematising" brain so well, thought "that's not much use any more", junked it, and has spent the last few months rebuilding those indexes. Because I feel those memories are still there; I just need to learn how to access them differently.

Quirky? Mad? Maybe... but it makes a perverse kind of sense to *me*; by upbringing and training I have a very logical and scientific mind. By inclination (and, I believe, nature) I have a much more perceptive, holistic mind. The two have coexisted in uneasy peace for the most part, with periodic skirmishes and battles for control. Now, the balance of power has switched. And I think that it's switched sufficiently for the skirmishing to cease.

What does this mean, to me? I think that by giving my creativity an outlet (through writing) that I've denied it for so long, that my "systematising" skills are being restored to me. And the great part about *that* is that it gives me back the creative outlet that I always enjoyed in that area; other people understand elements of the technology areas I specialise in, and that's fine; but few, I believe, really grok them in the way I used to; and in the way I feel returning to me, day by day.

Yup, the bitch is back!

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  • At 3:51 pm, Blogger Amy said…

    OK, so basically your brain might be re-spidering itself?

    So it might not be that hamsters ate your brain, but spiders are reweaving it. (And maybe clearing out some cobwebs)

    All hail evolution! :-)

    - Amy Gahran

  • At 7:15 am, Blogger Koan said…

    I love the spider analogy! :-) Mind you, I'm a sucker for analogies; as a former educator, I used to spend a lot of time and energy trying to formulate analogies that might help to get some obscure technical point across.

    I'm intrigued to find out what research (if any) has been done into the effect of cross-gender hormones on memory; or on the socialisation aspects, i.e. as I live and express myself in more female ways, what impact does that have on how I form and associate memories? I can see how it might have an impact moving forwards; but the effect on longer-term, historical memories? I wasn't expecting it to be the issue it turned out to be (if that's a contributory factor, of course).

    Well, it makes for an interesting life, if nothing else; truly, I'm never bored these days!


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