It's easy to do two things at the same time, as long as one of those actions is a practiced skill that you can do almost automatically. For example, walking and talking is easy.  And some people can play the guitar and sing, as long as they have practiced both of those skills until one requires virtually no conscious thought. But you can't do two things at the same time that both require original thinking. I know this first hand because my wife, Shelly, likes to bring up conversations in the car that involve rotating three-dimensional objects in my mind while expecting me to simultaneously navigating to our destination. This doesn't work out so well. The actual driving of the car is easy, because that is a practiced skill. But trying to imagine the correct route to our destination is impossible for me if Shelly is simultaneously asking me to imagine the optimal placement of patio furniture.

The other day, as I was cleaning pasta sauce off of every inch of the inside of the microwave, I was reminding Shelly of my bandwidth limitation for spatial manipulation. I blamed her for engaging me in a conversation involving the manipulation of objects while expecting that I would simultaneously be able to imagine the proper combination of pasta, sauce, a bowl, and (this next part is key) a cover inside a microwave. I managed to put four out of five objects in the right place, and frankly felt good about it.

I have a theory that music appreciation resides in the same part of your brain where you think about yourself. That might be why it's good to listen to music while doing boring tasks, such as going for a long run, because music interferes with your mind's ability to think about yourself. I also find it impossible to do any sort of creative writing while listening to music, perhaps for the same reason: Creativity springs from a deep examination of self, which you then generalize, and music seems to share that bandwidth. I can, however, listen to music and manipulate three-dimensional objects in my mind just fine. Those functions don't seem to interfere with each other.

I wonder if we humans will get to a point where we understand how to manage the different parts of our brains in the best fashion. For example, if you have an important upcoming task that involves manipulating objects in your mind, is it better to practice spatial tasks all morning, or better to rest that capacity of your brain until you need it?

During one period of my life I wrote a number of computer programs that involved intense manipulation of objects in my mind, for hours each day. I discovered that it was difficult to be social at night when my mind had been manipulating object during the day. It felt as if I were deep inside a cave and yelling to the people who stood at the cave opening. It seemed as if the practice of programming interfered with, or exhausted, the part of my brain that handles social skills.

It is generally agreed that playing soccer is a good crossover skill for playing tennis, because of the footwork. Could we get to the point of understanding the brain where, for example, we tutor someone who is struggling in math by asking him to do non-math tasks that are complementary to the math-handling part of the brain? I wonder, does playing a highly spatial video game for hours a day help your math skills, exhaust them, or have no impact?

If you have a date in the evening, will you be at your most witty and charming if you spent the hours ahead of the date doing light exercise, reading a novel, or assembling some IKEA furniture?  I'll bet there's a right answer to that question.


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+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 20, 2010
There was a study mentioned in Peopleware about music distracting from creativity but not from left-brainish tasks. Quoting http://javatroopers.com/Peopleware.html,

Creative Space - In response to complains about noise, you can treat the cause and choose isolation in the form of noise barriers, walls and doors which cost money. or you can treat the symptom by installing Muzak or some other form of pink noise, a much cheaper alternative. Or you can save even more money by ignoring the problem altogether so that people resort to their own CD players and headphones.

A Cornell experiment in the 1960s polled a group of computer science students and divded them into those who liked to work with music in the background and those who didn't. They put 1/2 of each group together in a silent room, and the other 1/2 in a different room equipped with headphones and a musical selection. To no one's surprise, they performed about the same in speed and accuracy of completing a Fortran programming task. The part of the brain required for arithmetic and related logic is unbothered by music which is handled by another brain centre.

There was a hidden wildcard. The specification required an output data stream be formed through a series of manipulations on numbers in the input data stream. Although unspecified, the net effect of all the operations was that each output number was equal to its input number. Of those students who figured this out, the overwhelming majority came from the quiet room. Not all work is centred around the same left part of the brain. There are occasional breakthoughs that may save months or years or work involving right-brain function. The creative penalty exacted by the environment is insidious since it is an occasional occurence anyway.
May 18, 2010
Scott: Consider left brain/right brain theory. According to that, (oversimplified) the right brain is creative and spacial and goes into "flow", and the left brain is verbal, literal, judgemental, mathematical and time-oriented. You can do a left brain activity and a right brain activity simultaneously, but two right or two left activities interfere. That is why you can't determine a patio layout and navigate in your car at the same time. They are both spacial activities. In Betty Edwards book and class "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain" she teaches that drawing is a right brain activity and can be best accomplished when we occupy our left brain with other tasks. I can do my best drawing while listening to music or a movie (but not watching the movie), because that occupies the left brain (and keeps it from judging the drawing). Perhaps cartooning is in a different category than drawing that attempts to look like real life (I don't know) because the drawing is more prescribed and mathematical. Betty teaches us to draw from the right brain by copying pictures UPSIDE DOWN so that the right brain can see the spacial relationships in the lines but the left brain doesn't easily recognize what it is, and apply its verbal labels and prescribed vision of what SHOULD look like. Computer programming involves elements of both right and left brain, spacial relationships in the flow of the activity, very literal wording of commands. I suppose it would depend on what aspect you are working with, and how advanced you are, as to whether you are using left or right at the moment. For example, driving a car or playing music are very left brain as you learn, read signs, read notes, process the meanings, etc, BUT as you learn, it falls into the right brain, as it becomes more automatic and as you learn to play the music as opposed to the notes. Listening to music could be left brain (who wrote this, what instrument is that) or right brain (feeling the music). I hope this made some sense.
+6 Rank Up Rank Down
May 17, 2010
I work in Advertising. Our graphic designers work all day listening to the radio - often phone-in talk shows. As a copywriter, I luckily get my own office and having the radio on results drops my productivity to zero. I thought I was strange - a kind of non-multitasking female.

It also confirms what I've always suspected - our graphic designers don't engage their brains while working.
May 16, 2010
The practise and performance of music will improve maths skills. I am not so sure about listening and in the same vane I suggest improvised music or playing by ear do not help either. I suspect the same functions that process the written symbols of music into physical, finely controlled actions reinforced by a positive feedback loop, encourage the same circuits of neurons to develop as those required for mathematical reasoning.

A previous post about Mozart's early mathematical genius i think may be a furphy. While Mozart's compositions can be analysed to show all sorts of advanced mathematical relationships I think that might be more a symptom of the nature of music. I am not aware of any accounts of his childhood precocity for advanced maths. I think the relationship between Mozart and maths continues to fascinate because of alliteration. For real maths in composition you should check out Monteverdi.
May 16, 2010
Hello Scott, I am physicist, and i can confirm your experience. If I speak to people before working on theoretical physics, I am worse at it.
-1 Rank Up Rank Down
May 16, 2010
It sounds like I need to reprogram your DNA, monkey-man.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
May 15, 2010
Um - how did you reach your present age without enough practice reheating leftovers in a microwave to develop an automatic anti-food-explosion system?
+12 Rank Up Rank Down
May 15, 2010

This article suggests that our brains are fairly plastic and can basically be optimized to their most frequent or important use. If you surf the web all day and skim read everything, your ability to deep read atrophies. If you are a London cabbie, your brain-part for geospacial stuff gets bigger while your memory gets smaller.

So, to an extent, we are already there. We can, over time, tune the brain towards our most important task (conciously or unconciously just by doing the same thing a lot). This really does underlie the 'practise makes perfect' axiom - practise makes your brain lay itself out to be optimal for the task.

I would like to add a codicil to your comments about music:

It depends on *kind* of music.

I am a programmer/designer. On a daily basis, I wrestle with huge code bases for whatever project is on the go at my employer-of-the-moment. Right now, it's 4G cellular data systems' provisioning servers. It's some fairly complicated stuff.

When I'm fully engaged, people can talk to me and have no effect. They need to shake me to disengage the part of my brain engaged with issues of software design.

On the other hand, I find dance or more preferably trance or electronica useful. Something like instrumental latin guitar is a close second. They provide a tempo (similar to what many 'work songs' have done over the ages of man) and help me keep focused if I'm tired or the subject really is thick and I'm struggling with it. The tempo helps prevent mind-wandering in the face of brick walls and roadblocks.

On the other hand, I've tried with regular music with vocal tracks that are trying to say something, to express something... and I find that doesn't provide the same benefit even if coupled with the tempo. My mind seems to latch onto some part of the speech and it distracts from my primary task.

I also find the same issue while trying to navigate complex highway interchanges in foreign places while following vague instructions. So some part of my brain that helps me sort out the geospatial elements is impeded by actual organized speech. You could think of multi-threaded software issues as having a similar visual design component which is impeded in the same way.

Now, if I'm writing something that doesn't require much brainpower (say, banging out some error logging code), I can probably do that while chatting or listening to 'wordy' music. But that doesn't really engage much of my geospatial brain.

Apparently, neither does trance, dance or electronica with few words. That just provides me with a rythmic background. My head bounces around on a gimbal and I tap my feet as I slam through tough coding problems (or if I'm travelling, through tough navigation issues).

You can tell when I hit the toughest of the tough in the world of computer coding or driving: I turn off all music and require every mental cycle to focus on exactly what I'm trying to wade through. And if people talk to me in this situation, there will either be a lot of me ignoring them or there will be a very noticable lag in my brain processing their comment, understanding it, and replying to them.
May 15, 2010
Richard Feynman satisfied himself that in a small group of electrical engineers and computer scientists, he could find people who had incompatible interfering tasks for counting upwards. For some of them, it was visual imagination, and for some, it was word tasks. It's described in "The Joy of Finding Things Out".

I would be surprised if the brain real-estate allocations of anyone except a very small, highly selected set of people (*maybe* computer programmers) are consistent enough to give safe advice.

May 14, 2010
I agree with hardcoder, doing anything on my blackberry helps my mind focus better.

BTW, check my comments on the March 3rd, 2006 comic strip. One of my favorites, because of something that actually happened to me. A great moment in my life and I have Scott Adams to thank for that!
May 14, 2010
hey Scott,I love your comics, can you give me some tips for making comics? Thanks
+4 Rank Up Rank Down
May 14, 2010
Congratulations Scott, you've stumbled on "multiple intelligence theory" as developed by Howard Gardner. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Howard_Gardner). The system of the theory is that we have discreet "intelligences," including: language, music, spatial, logic/math, body/kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalist, and existential.

To qualify, a candidate intelligence has to meet certain criteria, including: geniuses, people who utterly lack it, a physical location on the brain, an evolutionary history, and (I think) a cultural history.

All activities involve the simultaneous use of multiple intelligences. The place where the intelligences overlap is called a domain. A group of domains is called a field. Everything we think and learn happens physically in our neural structure, simultaneously and crosswired in different parts of the brain. We just don't know (mostly) how it works.
May 14, 2010
If I just sit in a meeting, my imagination becomes hyperactive and I start thinking about all sorts of stuff not related to the meeting, so I loose focus and find myself not listening.

If I play "Bricks" on my Blackberry during the meeting, it seems to reign in my imagination circuits, and I can actually focus and listen intently on the meeting, and retain far more. Although it looks the total opposite :)
0 Rank Up Rank Down
May 14, 2010
oh and ray kurzweil is already exploring brain wave inducing music for different capacities of performance.

That dude is a genius. You should read some of his stuff
-3 Rank Up Rank Down
May 14, 2010
you really shouldnt use a microwave, for so many, many reasons

can't you afford a personal chef?

I have some available
May 14, 2010
You lost me with the juxtaposition of "pasta" with "microwave".

I'd rather place my genitals in a blender than eat pasta that had its dipoles excited in a microwave. It makes as much sense as "frozen toast'; as if making actual toast is difficult.

May 14, 2010
Reminds me of how my wife normally tells me what she wants for her birthday - normally while I'm upside down under the sink replacing the faucet or maybe trying to navigate the non-load bearing floor of the attic while trying not to step between the beams and plunge through the ceiling in the room below. Then she gets mad when I can't remember what she told me to get her.
May 14, 2010

If you're referring to 'priming' a certain area of the brain for more intense activity in the near future, I think you're right. I have tried a few simple experiments. For example:

On certain days when I have work-related meetings that involve a politically charged atmosphere, a game of chess (with my computer opponent set to 'falling off a log') a couple of hours earlier really helps. I've noticed that I handle things a lot better. I guess the areas of the brain which deal with anticipating another persons motives/moves and planning accordingly gets some light exercise.

But yes, I don;t have any empirical data to prove this, as there are too many variables. No two meetings are ever the same.

But going by 'the feel of things', I do believe it is possible to 'manage' the brain more effectively as you suggested.
May 13, 2010
You have successfully applied the concept of 'multiprogramming' in computers to humans. I feel both humans and computers are actually able to do only one task at a time. However, they can switch their attention quick enough between different 'simultaneous' tasks which makes it appear as if multiple tasks are being performed at the same time. However, there is one big difference between humans and computers. Human brain works on neurons as against bits and bytes of a computer logic. The neurons adopt to repetitive tasks and therefore the brain requires lesser attention to perform the tasks each time. With some released attention each time, more tasks can be performed... Neurons adopt and mould while performing a task, therefore, it is difficult to re-mould and re-adopt for the next task if it require very different thought process..
0 Rank Up Rank Down
May 13, 2010
The comments about programming are all true, but I have one point to add. Programming is the act of juggling "lots" of simultaneous tasks (most web developers are keeping track of data models, business logic, object hierarchies, layout, styling, debugging tools running on second and third monitors, Google'd blog entries on their 4th monitor, etc, etc).

So not only is it sapping your social abilities as the day progresses, but it's doing so at a terrifying rate.
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