“Time Collapse” And My Broken Brain

I was perusing the news headlines this evening and I noticed this article about Glenn Beck’s health troubles.

A few sentences early on in the article floored me, because it describes how I feel exactly:

“Doctors tell me that up until recently, I hadn’t had a real REM sleep in maybe as long as a decade,” Beck said. “I didn’t have a dream that I remember, except one in a decade. And quite honestly, this isn’t a symptom you look to fix if you have a ton to do. But the first sign of trouble I noticed was what I call a ‘time collapse.’ If we had met before, I couldn’t tell you if it was a month ago, a year ago or when we were in high school. I then began to lose names to faces and over time, entire conversations would go away.”

Beck said doctors told him it was normal for someone processing as much information as he was, and the phenomenon has been discussed by figures like Winston Churchill.

“While essential facts remained, life became fuzzy,” Beck continued.

I also had sleep issues and in 2010, six years into TechCrunch, I began having these vertigo attacks that would knock me out for up to 48 hours. I went to a sleep center and my sleep improved dramatically; the vertigo attacks stopped by mid 2012.

I also looked back at an article about my life in 2010 in Inc. Magazine tonight. By then I had had a big weight gain while overseeing TechCrunch, and I’m sure that it was all related – a cycle of stress/weight gain/sleeping disorders that fed on itself until I left TechCrunch. My body fell apart shortly after that interview for Inc.

None of that is particularly interesting, though. Stress and all the negative health issues that come with it are a common topic on Hacker News and other tech water coolers.

Time Collapse

But I keep going back to that part about Beck where he talks about memory issues, possibly caused by or related to the amount of information he was processing.

After years running TechCrunch I began to notice significant short term memory loss.

I mentioned it in the Inc. article – “But then at some point in the past year, I suddenly lost my short-term memory,”

But over time it’s become much worse. I have significant trouble putting faces with names, and my memory loss is becoming so obvious to family and coworkers that it’s become sort of a joke.

I can remember conversations, or doing things, but I often can’t recall if they happened today, or last week, or even sometimes last year. It’s near universal, and unless I make a significant effort to really put an experience into “long term memory” as it happens, it just sort of fades away.

These things tend to creep up on you and it isn’t something I’ve thought about much until tonight when I read that Beck article, but it really does seem to be getting worse. Or perhaps just not getting better.

There are lots of ways I compensate. Like taking copious notes when I never used to write any. A lot of times I just accept it for what it is.

Beck calls it a “time collapse” and that really is a good way to describe what I feel. He links the issues to “processing as much information as he was” and that feels right, too.

“While essential facts remained, life became fuzzy,” he says. This, again, describes much of the last several years of my life perfectly.

While running TechCrunch I was processing a lot of information. Like nothing I’ve ever experienced before or after. I don’t think I could exaggerate this – “a lot” as in all-caps “A LOT.” Thousands of startups, many thousands of entrepreneurs and sources, and keeping all the details and interconnections straight. There’s a reason I started CrunchBase, to keep all that information organized.

Beck says that it took five years for his mind to recover. I’m about three years post-TechCrunch now. I hope that things will be getting better. Family and friends will certainly appreciate it.

PS – Beck says that Winston Churchill and others have discussed this, but a few minutes searching has turned up nothing. If anyone is familiar with “time collapse” or whatever it’s properly called, I’d love to read more.

15 thoughts on ““Time Collapse” And My Broken Brain

  1. AJ says:

    Have you considered a long vacation? And I mean a real vacation with the intention of doing nothing but relax and enjoyment, not a working vacation with your iPhone, email, Twitter, and the endless noise of the Internet to distract.

    Take a few months off. Clear the mind.

  2. I suffer from time crunch

  3. Jozsef says:

    You describe my experience exactly and the reference to an improvement after five years is a welcome ray of hope. I can no longer tell months ago from years ago; it’s all just “a while back.” I agree that we should learn about this so I’ll keep an eye out for relevant information and check back here.

  4. Johny Miric says:

    Information overload is a serious problem, our brains are not build to store so much information, therefore we need tools to organize them. Regarding getting your brain back, the best methods are relaxations, practice 2-3 times a day and you will see great progress after few weeks. Recently we published a new app offering solutions for these problems, http://www.oceen.com.

  5. This screams of niacin deficiency (or folate). We live in extraordinary times, where people do extraordinary things, which calls for an extraordinary diet. Unfortunately people usually don’t care about the last extraordinary.

  6. This is super interesting to hear about and compare to my young experiences in academia with Math professors; they are famously absent-minded. When I was studying with them, I would have similar symptoms — no memory of other people’s schedules, or where I’d left my car, all things one would expect should be easy to keep track of.

    I don’t remember if I dreamed then, but I don’t think so. I wouldn’t have even thought about it except I recently gave up caffeine and am slowing my life and information in-take down quite a bit. After a terrible week-long hangover, the first thing I noticed is that I started dreaming again. I hadn’t realized it but I had stopped dreaming sometime in the last five or so years.

    Thanks for sharing, it’s fascinating!

  7. Maximilian Seifert says:

    What Beck calls “time collapse” sounds a lot like “source memory impairment”. Source memory is the memory of when or where something was learned, as opposed to the memory itself. It’s pretty normal that this kind of memory suffers disproportionally as people get older, though the degree varies of course.

  8. settsu says:

    While I wouldn’t want to alarm you needlessly (or sound like an old Jewish mom), have you spoken with a doctor about early onset Alzheimer’s (or a similar condition)? Finding similar circumstances may assuage the understandable anxiety, but self-diagnosing (sleep studies notwithstanding) or dismissing it as “stress” or “I’m too young for ____” is a dangerous game (e.g., Susannah Cahalan’s Brain On Fire). Take care of yourself!

  9. Robert says:

    Neuroscientist here, pretty classic definition of memory between episodic and semantic. The hippocampus seems to weight events differently from facts, likely because the load for the former is much higher. You can readily associate facts with things you already know. With events, you are often experiencing the breadth of details for the first time. Since less sleep and more stress adversely affects the hippocampus, event memories become that much harder to store. REM sleep is also used to play back event memories for deeper storage, so in stressful lifestyles you are increasingly hindered from memories of this type. Time “collapses” because the event details are not remembered.

    Great name for the phenomenon.

    • Michael Arrington says:

      What about the fact that it’s been years since most of the problems occurred? I’m getting great sleep now with a CPAP machine, and my stress levels are way down from what they were. But the problem persists even three years after “fixing” things.

  10. Don Dodge says:

    Mike, I hope you find a solution to this soon. The CPAP helped me a lot too. Sleep is critically important. I remember the Mike Arrington of 2006…funny as hell, always laughing, quick wit…I want that Michael back 🙂 I miss you man. Really…I miss you a lot.

  11. Dan says:

    Had same symptoms, less sleep also triggered lucid dreaming, now that was awesome! Anyhow, like Erin Khoo mentioned, folate will help. I am also on B6 and B12, vitamin C and cod liver oil, including Magnesium Chloride, with more sleep, my memory is back and running like crazy! Good Luck!

  12. William G. says:

    I had terrible brain fog for most of my life, up until about two years ago. Went to see a functional medical doctor—which basically just means someone who tries to figure out the underlying cause of the problem. Was given certain herbs, including “chaga tea”, which I believe detoxed heavy metals out of my brain. Also had acupuncture, which very quickly reversed my short term memory issues. I was convinced that acupuncture was going to be a waste of time, but doctors were of no help. Acupuncture was amazing, like waking up for the first time and having my brain upgraded to a Blu-Ray player. Dreams began to become very realistic. Thoughts became clear. Memories refocused and became more accessible.

    Long story short, I later found out that there is a significant amount of scientific research linking iron deposits in the brain to memory issues—including Alzheimer’s, dementia and other neurodegenerative issues.

    As it turns out, many diseases of civilization are linked to iron deposits in certain tissues. Diabetes is related to iron deposits in the liver, as is fatty liver disease. Obesity is related to iron deposits in adipose tissue. Heart disease is related to iron deposits in the heart. Cancer is related to iron scavenging by cancer cells. This is all easily researched on Google Scholar. What confounds researchers is that people with iron issues can often appear anemic because the iron is being withheld in tissues and organs to keep harmful levels of iron out of the blood when there is inflammation.

    Your red blood cells need iron, but grown men need very little—particularly if they aren’t sweating much. Refined foods are often fortified with iron. Any excess iron easily oxidizes (rusts) in your body and is a significant instigator of inflammation. All the fuss over anti-oxidants is mainly to counteract oxidation related to iron. If you take the time to look, you may also find that the countries consuming the most iron—either in the food supply through food fortification, high meat consumption, or through environmental pollution, tend to have the most health problems. Fortified food may be particularly bad as it is often added to refined foods that lack the antioxidants and iron inhibitors found in most whole foods.

    Most super foods or medicinal herbs (chaga, yacon, spirulina, cinnamon, turmeric, etc) have the ability to remove or “chelate” iron from the body. That’s likely not a coincidence. Whole grains have phytates, which also inhibit and exert iron-binding and chelating properties, which may be why they have health-promoting effects.

    If you believe that iron depositions in the brain may be a factor in your cognitive issues, green tea is known to chelate iron deposits out of the brain and green tea is known to enhance memory. If green tea has too much caffeine, you can use white tea instead—which is just as effective but has much less caffeine in it.

    Hope that gives you some guidance. Understanding a possible underlying cause of cognitive decline makes reversing it much easier. Good luck to you.

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