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.


Rank Up Rank Down Votes:  +174
  • Print
  • Share


Sort By:
May 13, 2010
There is a great book by James Paul Gee...What Video Games have to Teach Us about Literacy and Learning...It is worth reading. Talks about how video games are doing a better job of teaching reading than reading teachers.

So...I would say...yes. Doing seemingly unrelated mental tasks do prepare a person for application in other areas. I think that there are lots of examples. Especially if you are a ninja.
May 13, 2010
"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. "

That describes most of my workdays. I've always thought my brain is just powering down the social parts it doesn't use during the day to conserve energy for the programming part.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
May 13, 2010
I cannot even drive and listen to radio music of any substance. It amazes me how some people can play it so loudly in their cars. I listen to sounds as they interweave and harmonize, and speculate, if it is an unfamiliar piece, in which era it was written and by whom. The varieties of classical music played on FM radio put me in Music Mode. My brain gives it full attention and any other challenging intellectual activity on different subjects is put on hold. You know how a dream begins to take shape just as you fall asleep? That is what happens to me during this time, and sights in my field of vision dissolve momentarily.

I play piano, not well, and just for my own entertainment. If Satan appeared and asked nicely for my soul I would consider selling it to play piano like a professional. The interesting thing is that if I watch a TV program wherein a pianist is playing a piece I like, I can go to the music room and play above my usual level for hours. It is so frustrating, the arbitrary way in which the ability appears, as if my mind needs to be primed beforehand.

And here is the strange part, that I cannot do any other thing while listening to recordings, but while playing my mind roams free. I get some of my best story ideas while performing music. It scares me that I cannot control my brain the way I want. What is music talent that it possesses some and eludes others? If wishes came true, I would be an Artur Rubenstein. I would like to read something a real musician would post something in regard to this. I am unworthy.

My mind is not mathematical, but I have to use math it in my work. As I get involved in a project, I break through layers of concentration until a level is reached where I can visualize three-dimensional objects and their interrelationships. Staying there for any length of time, I find it difficult to emerge back into the non-mathematical world. Everything seems distant and unreal, and sometimes I have to take a short nap for my mind to reset, as it were, back to reality.

My brain has been endless source of frustration to me ever since childhood. I would give nearly anything to learn concentration to command whatever abilities I have to their full potentials.
May 13, 2010
People can and do think about themselves when listening to music - when they imagine themselves singing the song in front of a stadium of people!
May 13, 2010
I agree, I always complain I get "Spacey" and unsociable when I spend all day writing software.
May 13, 2010
Mozart was also a mathematical genius and could have made great contributions to the field of math if he hadn't chosen music (or had it chosen for him by his father, a music teacher). As a child, he used chalk to write long formulas on the floors and walls and even furniture.
0 Rank Up Rank Down
May 13, 2010
Scott, Thank you for that incredibly lucid post. Now I know why my wife's constant string of questions over insignificant minutiae has the ability to drive me completely bonkers at times. The old saying about there being a strong woman behind every successful man is perhaps true. Maybe their strength can be defined as knowing (probably intuitively) how to keep their husband's mind clear and operating at maximum bandwidth.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
May 13, 2010
Recently, I've been playing a lot of Dragon Origins, an RPG with a great deal of character interaction. The NPC dialogue is spoken by talented actors and their 3D depictions are surprisingly life-like. I've discovered, first to my alarm, and then to my amusement, that it seems to satisfy the part of my brain that craves social interaction. Phone calls from real people, even those I really like, seem annoying if I'm playing. Good thing the game has an end coming up in the near future because at the moment, I prefer my imaginary friends!
May 13, 2010
A study I read in college found that children who were given extra music education - at the expense of some of their math & language education - surpassed their peers on math & language exams, even though they had had less instruction in both topics. It was later found that the children hadn't been randomly-selected, as initially intended - they were the children who had already been pegged as low-achievers. I believe the studies about Mozart were later found to be inconsistent, but a lot of both anecdotal and experimental evidence shows that musical thinking is closely tied to mathematical thinking - it may be that listening to music just before or during a test won't have a noticeable effect, but that musical instruction over a longer term will improve mathematical ability.
May 13, 2010
Scott, I love ALL your posts but this is quite possibly your best yet.

Now, if only it had some answers!
May 13, 2010
Don't forget that women and men use different parts of their brains for spacial figuring and we have wildly different capacities for parallel thinking. It may be easy for your wife to do two novel and divergent tasks at the same time, hence her assumption that it would be no problem for you.
I smell scientific tests.
May 13, 2010
Wasn't there a study a few years ago about how students who listened to certain kinds of music (was it Mozart?) before taking a math test did better on the math tests than if those same students did not list to the music before the test? I'm not sure what area of the brain each of these activities taps into, but it seems the answer to the question is in the results of that research study (if, indeed, it was a legitimate research study).
May 13, 2010
See, I can listen to music and be excessively creative, I cannot be creative if I hear a TV in the background.

I completely agree with the Social Sapping power of programming. On days I spend hours programming, I generally don't want to talk to anybody that night. Generally that night involves sitting and playing mindless computer games, or watching TV. My wife has learned this trait of mine, and doesn't take it personally, she's just glad my primary job is not programming every day.

May 13, 2010
To look at the final question I would timorously suggest light exercise. This is what always leaves me at my most sociable. Reading is introspective and being interesting on a date requires being in the moment. Assembling Ikea furniture would to me be an analog t the process of programming. As a programmer I might acknowledge that programming is inherently social skill sapping - either that or most programmers just don't care for such things?

Strangely though I think you do lose yourself in programming (getting the focus) in a similar way as when you play sport. So I am nw not sure about what I said above. Oh well.
Get the new Dilbert app!
Old Dilbert Blog