System Overload (Error Messages)


Some of us are old enough to remember the Ed Sullivan Show, which was a variety show on television. One guest was a man who would spin plates on sticks. He’d prop a dowel onto a stand, and get a china plate spinning atop of it (the top of the dowel inside the lip around the base of the plate). Then when this one was going, he’d start up another plate, and another one, then have to rush over and give the first plate a fresh spin because it would be getting wobbly, re-spin the second plate, add another plate or two, re-spin the third plate, and so on, until his time was spent rushing back and forth re-spinning all his plates.

Of course what made this act popular was that it wasn’t just a parlor trick; it was a metaphor for all the things we have to juggle in our lives and sometimes cannot. You know what happens when you have too many plates spinning; one is likely to get away from you (crash!) as you devote time to another …

Some days everything runs pretty well. I compensate for various difficulties. I feel smart, converse appropriately, don’t get overly sidetracked, and get things done. No one notices that I am having to work as hard as I really am to “spin all my plates” and keep them in the air.

Other days are bumpy and uneven; I do well at some activities, but less well at others. I can spin all my figurative plates with varying degrees of efficiency, but it is obviously a strain and I don’t try to keep the intensity up all day. I might drop a plate or two, but manage to pick it back up and get it going again.

Then there are the days when my plate-spinning skills suck. I get too overwhelmed by the quantities of novel inputs I am trying to sort out, or the numbers of simultaneous inputs that all require high-level cognitive work, combined with my internal processing glitches. Days like this are not unlike switching from a high-speed cable internet connection on a new computer with a GHz processor, to a low-speed dial-up connection on an old computer with a low-MHz processor. The slow internet connection makes the Web pages load s-l-o-w-l-y frame by frame. Trying to run more than one program at once makes all of them process in an anxious, halting manner. Every now and then an error message pops up, a program will abruptly close, or the entire system will freeze up and the computer has to be force-quit and rebooted.

When my processing gets overloaded, my perceptions of things around me are reduced. Objects are not individually distinct, but can erratically devolve into indistinct patterns of color and lighting. I cannot identify people by my usual gestalts of nonfacial characteristics, and sometimes I don’t even perceive them as people but just as moving objects. Some kinds of visuals, such as high-contrast vertical stripes or flashing things derail my attention completely, leaving me frozen and entranced.

My reading ability gets dyslexic – I interpret a newspaper headline as “Stove Jar Bunk” (instead of “Star Drove Drunk”), and I mix up 2 and 5 or 7 and L. Grading multiple-choice assignments with all those b and d answers is dizzying, especially with so many of our students also being dysgraphic. My own writing ability gets erratic, and I spell things inside out, drop entire words, have to focus on forming individual letters, and at worst writing only works at the level of “autofill” where I’m mostly writing or keyboarding by kinesthetic memory.

Sounds get intermingled, and the audio processing track gets stutters, repeat loops, and blank spots. The tinnitus gets worse, and goes from mild background mosquito-whine in one ear to louder buzzing noise or two-tone noises in both ears. Sometimes when people talk to me I don’t realize they are speaking, or that they are speaking to me, so there’s additional decoding delay. When I talk I am more likely to stutter, drop certain phonemes, substitute some random word, or stop in mid-sentence because I have suddenly lost the rest of the words I was about to say.

The number of texture sensations I feel are reduced to just one or two, but frequently switches from my socks, my glasses, the chair, my shirt, or something in my hand. Sometimes those sensations become magnified, where much of my world becomes filled with the annoyance of socks drooping down my ankles. When I try to focus my attention to one sensory processing channel, then I can’t pay attention to the others. The tics get more pronounced, I shake one hand repeatedly, and my proprioception is off, making me trip or drop things or walk in a somewhat spastic manner.

I’ve heard that outwardly I appear clumsy, stupid, drunken or sick. Random people ask me, “Are you okay?”

It takes so much effort to realise that (1) the noise is people talking (2) the person is talking to Me (3) who this person might be (4) what the words are (5) what the words mean (6) that they are asking a non-rhetorical question that requires some kind of answer (7) trying to self-assess: am I okay? (8) what would “okay” be? (9) does someone else need to do something for me?

Coming up with an answer that is both functional and is bracketed with something close to the appropriate “social noise” (polite fluff) is a bit much to expect from me at this point. It’s hard to think of a suitably informative reply, but of one thing I am certain: please don’t make me go sit in tiny places painted institutional pea-green. I’m not sure where I’ve encountered those before, just that I know it was a not-good situation and I don’t want to go there again.

The best answer is an “I’m okay,” pulled from the mental drop-down menu of stock social phrases. Most people don’t really want to get involved; they just want to be reassured that an ambulance is not required. Even if I’m not making eye contact and my delivery sounds flat, this seems to be an adequate answer. Sometimes I’m mentally stuck on that drop-down menu, and deliver an additional, “Thank you,” or “Excuse me,” but apparently this is okay because the value of social noise currency is in the act of exchanging, not in the specific coin.

Getting too overloaded means I have to shut down for a while, slumping numbly in a chair and rocking without being focused upon anything. Unless of course I get snagged by one of those shiny, glittering or flashing things, such as the glowing blue light on an electronic mechanism, or slips of sunshine flickering through tree leaves. Even so, I’m not entirely “there”, and am probably still rocking a bit.

The trick is noticing when I am at the beginning of getting overwhelmed, of noticing the buzz that’s swamping my nervous system in transmission noise. The problem of course, is that by then I have even less mental processing for self-monitoring to realise what’s going on!  But I’ve figured out that experiencing tingling-numbness, really loud tinnitus, or pronounced difficulty in reading or writing are useful cues that I need to take a good break from whatever I’m doing.

Otherwise my plates wobble and start crashing.