Tuesday, February 27, 2007
Getting Bored and Mind Occupiers
It's a well-established psychological fact that doing more than one
task at a time tends to interfere with your ability to do any of the
tasks. One task distracts you from the other, and vice versa. As a
result, psychologists generally believe that your best performance on
a task will happen when that one task is all you are doing.
I don't think this is always true.
For example, computer programming is not my favorite thing to do.
By a long shot.
In general I find it pretty boring. In this case, what this
means is that while I'm programming, I don't find the moment-to-moment
challenges associated with it interesting. My mind wants to wander on
to other topics I'm more interested in, like, perhaps, understanding
the nature of boredom. That is, when doing a sufficiently boring task,
the mind will create its own distractor task to impede performance!
Alas, sometimes I must program. I find that listening to music helps
me stay focused on the programming. Although I'm sure this makes
intuitive sense to people (because I bet lots of people have some task
for which listening to music makes them perform better), it's
cognitively curious. In general, music does not help with tasks. It's
considered distracting. What I think is going on here is that it's
music's very distractingness that allows me to be a better
One of the reasons I get bored with programming is because even though
there are times of difficult problem solving (during which I turn the
music off), there are other times where you are just tediously writing
code you know needs to be written. If my mind wanders too much, I
can't write the tedious code. Listening to music occupies my mind just
enough so that the combination of coding and music-listening satisfies
my intellectual curiosity.
However, it's got to be the right music. If the music is too boring,
it's not enough of a distractor to occupy my mind. Minimalist techno
comes to mind. On the other extreme, if the music is too interesting,
then it will occupy so much of my mind that it has the same effect as
daydreaming, and I can't do the programming task at hand. Eminem and
Laurie Anderson are like this. I can never listen to either of them
when I program-- they are just too attention-intensive.
I also can't like the music too much. If I play A Tribe Called Quest,
it's too distracting because I end up rapping along and dancing around
the room. Needless to say, this behavior is uncondusive to
So I have to listen to music I kind of like, that's kind of
interesting. Instrumental electonic music tends to do pretty well for
Sometimes people think about how slowly one must talk to be
understood, but rarely do people think of how quickly one must talk to
be understood. At the extreme, imagine you heard one word ever
fifteen minutes. Would you be able to keep track of the sentence? It
would be very difficult, because your mind will occupy itself in the
meantime with other thoughts. You've got 15 minutes until the next
word, so think about what you're going to do about this project, or
what you'll do on that vacation.
But we needn't go to one word every 15 minutes to encounter this
problem. I find normal people who are slow talkers agonizing for just
this reason. They are talking so slowly my mind is constantly trying
to multitask and do other things, keeping me from understanding the speaker. I find that when people want to be
understood they slow down what they're saying, but I have found that,
for me anyway, slowing down your speech inhibits my understanding,
because I'm trying to do other cognitive tasks at the same time. And
if I force myself to attend only to the slow-talker, I can understand,
but I get bored and slightly resentful. When people talk quickly, my
mind is fully, happily occupied with comprehending them.
I encounter a related problem sometimes when trying to sleep. My mind gets
active, and what I end up thinking about is so distracting and
interesting it keeps me awake. But if I think about nothing, or
something too simple, I get bored.
Counting sheep does not work for me, because simple counting is too
easy. My mind finds itself thinking about something else while
counting. The counting is automatized. On the other hand, doing long
division in my head is tiring, unrelaxing and too complicated. I
need something in between. So when I'm trying to sleep, I count, on
per second, in the following pattern: 1. 1, 2. 1, 2, 3. 1, 2, 3, 4.
1, 2, 3, 4, 5... all the way up to nine. Then I start over. I do it in time with the ticking of my clock (It's
actually quite difficult to get past fifteen with this!) This task is
not challenging, per se, but does require that I simultaneously keep
in mind the number I'm currently at with the counting and, at the same
time, the number I'm counting up to. This occupies my mind well enough
but not too much such that I can fall asleep. I've also heard that
counting backward from 1000 is also good in this regard, though I find
that a little work-intensive.
So I think of the mind as a machine that needs fuel. Not only in terms
of oxygen and glucose, but also in terms of stimulation and ideas. If the environment
is not providing those ideas in sufficient quantity, then the mind
will create its own, even if this means interfering with the external
task at hand. And to focus on a not-too-challening task, sometimes you
need to feed the mind with something juuuuust occupying enough to
satisfy the mind without being distracting from the task at hand. These
supplemental tasks have to be in a sweet-spot: They cannot be too
boring nor too interesting.
It would be fascinating to try to quantify this. Perhaps the
intellectuality of a task can be measured-- say, in "stimulons." Perhaps we
can determine, for an individual, how many stimulons per minute they
need to not be bored, and then attach stimulons to various tasks. Perhaps a music generator could manipulate the complexity and enjoyment of the music to maximize task performace-- from no sound at all to a fascinating track.