digital brain

Brain Limits

I’ve heard you can’t really multi-task, despite people who claim they can.

I don’t entirely agree. I can do more than one thing at a time, but only to a point. For example, I can perform simple familiar tasks, like washing dishes, while thinking about something I’m writing or intend to write. And listening to a news program. In fact, I need to have some sort of mental input while doing manual work, even something like sewing, which is not simple or familiar.

But there are limits. I’ve tested them.

First, let me describe the usual scenario in my writing and blogging space. There’s the computer, with a bunch of weather-related tabs open, plus WordPress, plus Goodreads and a few others. Also email, of course. There’s an old-fashioned mini-stereo setup behind and to one side of the computer. It can play CDs and even cassette tapes, although it’s hardly ever called upon to do that. Mostly it’s a radio, and if I’m at the computer, it’s always on, cranking out music, news, or a current affairs program. Sometimes there’s music on the radio and at the same time a podcast on the computer, talking to me through one earbud. And as well as listening, I’m reading blog posts, or even writing one.

multitasking head media colourful
Image from Pixabay

Is this ideal? Probably not, but it seems to work. Is it multi-tasking? No. It’s sequential tasking. The old brain can deal with only one or perhaps two of these inputs at a time. The music seems to seep through the other stuff, but if it fully engages my attention, I disengage from the other tasks so I can listen properly. Otherwise, I’m taking in and focussing on only the words I’m reading, writing, or listening to, for sequential short intervals. I have to admit, I miss a lot of details of the radio programs while paying attention to blog posts or whatever I’m writing. Quite often, my attention is caught by the host thanking the interviewee or announcing the performer, having missed whatever was said, played, or sung. Annoying, but there it is.

When this input-juggling is working well, I can actually get things read or written and switch focus in time to get something out of whatever I’m listening to. It’s not the best way to absorb information, but it’s the only way I’ve come up with to keep up with the blogs I follow and what’s going on in the world, as well as creating blog posts and other writings.

Maybe this is why by the end of the day I don’t trust myself to write comments on people’s blog posts. The brain is worn out!

A final thought: if a long writing session is too challenging, a five-minute one jammed in between other mental tasks is manageable. Several such sessions actually produce visible results. Note: I don’t write first drafts of novels this way; that’s a whole other process!

Ideal combinations:

  • manual work + informative radio program
  • reading blogs + informative radio program or music
  • reading fiction + music
  • writing + music

Ideally, only two inputs at a time, you notice.

On the other hand, I don’t watch anything. At all. Well, maybe the odd video, but only if it’s a short one. No TV, no streaming. I read a lot of books. I do this reading away from the computer and even the radio, mainly during meals and before going to sleep.

Fellow bloggers, how do you avoid brain overload? Do any of you multitask?

No Music, No Writing

Can it be a coincidence that I have written hardly anything new since I started spending more time on the computer (blogging, checking blog and book stats, reading discussions about writing, etc.) and less time alone with music?  I listen to talk radio in the mornings and have taken to doing so in the evenings as well, instead of turning to music as I did in my years of intense writing.

Thinking back with nostalgia to those years, I recall  that I would hustle down to my subterranean writing room around 7:30 p.m. with a pot of tea and my favourite cat, and not emerge until around 10 p.m. (lugging empty teapot and the cat, who usually wasn’t ready to pack it in). Those 2.5 hours would be spent hunched over my current manuscript (either a pile of paper densely covered with longhand scribble or a Word document on my not-connected-to-the-internet computer — essentially a glorified typewriter). I had on hand a couple of dozen CDs and would pop one in and swap it for others as the evening progressed:  Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Schubert’s Winterreise, Britten, Shostakovich or maybe Loreena McKennitt. Or Thomas Tallis. Or Marjan Mozetich. Old friends all, now rarely heard.

So what happened?

What happened was that in 2010 I decided to self-publish The Friendship of Mortals through Smashwords. I bought a new computer and got an internet connection. I published the book and started this blog. By that time I had finished writing my Herbert West trilogy and another novel (inspired by and featuring Schubert’s Winterreise, strangely enough). Instead of rushing to my writing room to create, I rushed to the computer to check stats, monitor progress and tinker with existing  works. Suddenly it seemed important to keep up with world events, revolutions, massacres and political scandals, not to mention other writers’ opinions on SP vs. TP, “-ly” words, and other weighty matters. CDs languished unplayed and ideas remained unwritten.

I’ve published the other books in my trilogy since then, as well as written 158 blog posts, and read a lot of other writers’ works, both published and in progress. I’ve written comments and “reviews,” and awarded stars to books I read recently or long ago. I did some of these things because they were fun and others with the idea that I was creating an “internet presence” or “profile” that would help to bring my books to public attention. I can’t apply the label “marketing” to any of this, and I’m not certain that it was the best use of my time. My efforts at new writing remain spotty and I still hear music by accident, rather than listen to it consciously.

Music stirs up the creative waters, whereas talk clutters up the brain, making a buzz that drowns out original thoughts and blocks perception of the delicate connections between unlikely ideas that are the crucible of inspiration. Is it better to spend time on dubious self-promotion efforts rather than trace those connections and turn ideas into words? Even if those words remain unread due to lack of “marketing?”