William Safire said to “avoid cliches like the plague“. With all due respect to that admirable sentiment, I have to repeat one of my favorite cliches: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” Perhaps if I re-classified that statement as a personal motto rather than a favorite cliche, I won’t be breaking rules of good writing? Hard to say.
My expectation is that, by end summer, I’ll be physically better than ever, and at least as formidable mentally as I was previously. Physically, I think this is possible since I have a great deal of time on my hands and strong motivation to get myself into the best physical shape possible. I’m eating well and exercising every single day, usually twice per day. This is essential because there’s an unfortunate possibility that I may need to fight this goddamn tumor again, and if so, I need to be in prime shape (meanwhile, I’m channeling all of my various energies into encouraging clearance of any residual tumor cells). As of right now, I’m only cleared by the surgeons to walk, but I’ve been doing my walking with great enthusiasm. The nearby plot from my phone shows a general upward trend, and an average of ~4 miles per day. In context, at the rehab hospital a month ago, five laps around the floor during Physical Therapy would have been a notable exertion. Four miles is roughly 72 laps around the floor. Great progress indeed. Sadly, I find my stamina and endurance to be much diminished from pre-surgery norms. Jing and I took Quinn to the zoo last Friday. Good news: no one had any seizures despite hundreds of screaming children. Bad news: after a mere 1.5 miles in St. Louis humidity, I was exhausted and ready for nap. The zoo is even more special these days when my olfactory acuity is much greater. No need to check the map to find the elephants…
Mentally, I’m optimistic about the cognitive rehab so far because my mind has cleared up enormously since surgery, and if I was able to get a PhD and faculty position with that chicken egg of tumor weighing on my brain, shouldn’t I be able to run that much faster without it? Perhaps things don’t work that way, but in any case, the brain is exceptionally plastic, and I’m in the full time business of building new synapses these days. I have three main training venues: (1) Brain Baseline, (2) Lumocity, and (3) Classical Guitar. Despite being the title of this blog, I haven’t written much about the Bach/guitar side of things yet. That will be rectified soon; I’m making progress that I’m excited to show off.
Brain Baseline is a series of iPad tasks that can be used as metrics for some low-level brain functions; I’ve shown some of my traces previously. Since then, I’ve continued to make progress, as shown by the nearby plots. Memory and attention have both jumped into the 90th percentile, while “all cognitive areas” is now estimated to be in the 68th percentile. Not quite where I need it to be, but please keep in mind that these metrics are still weighting some of the scores from early on when I was unquestionably impaired. You may be curious why “speed of processing” had such a favorable trend that dramatically reversed. The explanation is that at the time, I was trying to involve Quinn (my emotional middlest daughter) in my rehab and asked her to take one of my exams. Conclusion: 3-year-olds are NOT good at attention / speed of processing tasks. Myelin is actually important. Honestly, Brain Baseline is starting to get a little tedious, which is a good sign. Boredom is a high-level cognitive function.
I’m also doing over an hour a day of training on Lumocity. These tasks are more fun, and it’s easier to see how success translates into actual cognitive achievement. I’ve been keeping close tabs on my scores for a month now, and the data shows some clear progress. Since every game has a different scale for their scores, I’ve normalized everything to my highest career score in any given game (i.e. 1.0). The nearby dot plot shows how I’ve performed relative to this highest score for every game on every day of the past month. The data have a modest fit (R-squared > 0.1) to a positive trend line, and the equation that defines the curve suggests that my performance is increasing by 1.5% every day. Not too shabby. Similar to Brain Baseline above, Lumocity ranks my total performance as being in the 70th percentile, which isn’t terribly impressive by itself, but believe me, it feels much better than being labeled as impaired, and one has to keep in mind that many of the early trials were not quite my best efforts, and that the percentiles are set by geeks who pay to take these tests, not exactly the typical population.
Of interest for future studies: (1) Is there a time-of-day effect on performance in different tasks? I have been militant about my sleep schedule lately for obvious reasons, so I can’t generate any overnight time-course data, but perhaps even twelve hours of data is enough to tease out a circadian effect. (2) Is my performance on novel tasks plateauing sooner now than it did early on when I was still impaired? This would be encouraging news, because it would indicate rehabilitation of executive functions and improved performance dealing with novelty, which is happily my entire line of work. Perhaps there is a paper to be written here, in PLoS ONE or maybe a specialty Psych / Rehab journal.