Brain of Mutilation

I’m back in uni for the second semester (well, trimester) of the 2014-15 academic year.

Well, there’s an opening line to strike excitement into the hearts of men. Didn’t they say in first semester to start a flash piece strongly? Yep. So, if you’re looking for that sort of thing, please think about checking out my piece in the first issue of the new international journal of English-language poetry and short fiction, Brain of Forgetting.

I shouldn’t have been able to see Glen Coe from Brooklyn. It’s thirty-two hundred miles. Yet the last thing I saw was a cairn.

Kurt sez, “This is how you do it: ‘All this happened, more or less.'”

You can pick up a free digital edition of Brain of Forgetting #1: Stones here. It’s a good-looking, 106-page book that’s also available in hard copy.

So. Yeah. “I’m back in uni” doesn’t touch the heights. Let’s try to stay positive, though. This semester, my option course for the Creative Writing M.Sc. is Exploring the Novel. There’s going to be a lot of reading for that. Big, chunky stories. Last week, Sense and Sensibility; this week, Madame Bovary. Last week, I volunteered a story for the first workshop of the year. And I’ve just knocked off my first ballad, a hopeful entry for Nerd Bait’s Das Liederbuch cycle.

Now, this wasn’t enough to be going on with, so yesterday as I was sitting on the bus, I scanned the paper for material for today’s blog. On my phone, natch. And I stumbled upon an article that spoke about why I was continually trying to do stuff and learn stuff.

Ricky explains his creative process

No, it’s not just because the creative process needs an unreal amount of input to provide details of reality, as well as the one piece of stimulus among x,000,000 others that will suggest a worthwhile piece of work.

In the article, an extract from his latest book, the neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin makes a bunch of observations. One of the first is about the extent to which we are attached to our phones. They’re not all original. It was interesting to read a tossed-off remark that “more people have mobile phones than have toilets.” But you’ve probably noticed the rise of the related “implicit expectation that you should be able to reach someone when it is convenient for you, regardless of whether it is convenient for them.”

These mobile phones, as Levitin describes them, are “Swiss army knife–like appliances that include a dictionary, calculator, web browser, email, Game Boy, appointment calendar, voice recorder, guitar tuner, weather forecaster, GPS, texter, tweeter, Facebook updater, and flashlight.”

Good, I need a wine opener!

It’s not so long since I was sitting at a desk in Midtown in front of computer monitor displaying an email client that was sucking in literally thousands of messages a day. In a minimised window, my personal email was open, and of course my iPhone was sitting on the desk.

In five minutes, that’ll probably sound quaint. Text messages are supplanting emails, making communication even more instant. I mean, who can keep up with all stuff? It seems like the kids on my course are more about Facebook than Twitter. I thought all the kids were migrating off Facebook in fear of bumping into their parents? I’ve had to get Snapchat to make me feel young again. Though I’m not entirely sure of the point. Like, how difficult is it to take a screenshot of something in three seconds?

I think I’ve figured out how to do it!

Although, 4,820 tweets ago I was saying the same thing about Twitter.

The point Levitin is making, is that we’re constantly surrounded by opportunities for multitasking. And we take them, he says, because each twist, each new shot of info, pumps our novelty centres and gives us a shot of dopamine. Like the rats that would press levers for a shot, ignoring food and sleep until they died of starvation and exhaustion. Not unlike Moritz Erhardt.

Moritz was the 21-year-old intern at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in London who, ten-and-a-half months after my haemorrhagic stroke, died after working three nights in a row. Early each morning, he would pop home for a quick shower while his taxi waited outside, before returning to the office. This procedure is so commonplace that it has a name: the magic roundabout.

Dougal! We’re closing tomorrow, you lazy bastard!

And a couple of years later, here I am doing all this stuff. But it’s different. The practice of writing — as it currently applies to me, at least — is quite unlike the practice of commercial financial lawyering. The secret is less keeping as many people happy at the same time as possible, as it is setting aside large, discrete chunks of time for research, or immersion in a fictive world, or drilling down on editing, as required by the task at hand.

It’s like the difference, I suppose, between parallel and serial processing. Which is good for the stroke survivor. Multitasking for, say, a securitization lawyer, or the head of a genetics lab, requires constant decision-making.

Do I answer this text message or ignore it? How do I respond to this? How do I file this email? Do I continue what I’m working on now or take a break?

Two eight balls, five Milky Ways, four Red Bulls, one hooker…

Because we’re not talking about proper parallel processing, but serial processing sped up to such an extent that it resembles parallel processing. Dr Levitin notes that “decision-making is… very hard on your neural resources and… little decisions appear to take up as much energy as big ones.” And to make things worse, this has a deleterious effect on impulse control.

Information starts to go to the wrong parts of the brain. Levitin writes about metabolic costs arising from constant shifting. This burns up a lot of brain food.

Oxygenated glucose, that is.

The lack of nutrients “leads to compromises in both cognitive and physical performance…. [R]epeated task switching leads to anxiety, which raises levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the brain, which in turn can lead to aggressive and impulsive behaviour.” And on and on.

In a separate Q&A session, Prof. Levitin offers some potential solutions to the problems he’s identified. My anecdotal evidence would suggest that they’re not all winners. I suppose it’s possible that a 15-minute nap might give rise to the equivalent of a ten point boost in IQ, but who can take a 15-minute nap without a groggy resurfacing and, most likely, another 15-minute nap?

Calvin preps for a conference call. Yes, you look too interested.

What’s been more effective for me is the use of what Levitin calls “brain extenders”, or “anything that get[s] information out of our heads and into the physical world: calendars, key hooks by the front door, note pads, ‘to do’ lists.” Here’s one I do, but with bags, hats and recycling, etc.

If you hear on the weather report that it’s going to rain tomorrow, rather than reminding yourself to bring your umbrella, set the umbrella by the front door – now the environment is reminding you to bring the umbrella.

I mean, I live in Scotland. I know it’s raining.

Taking breaks is another recommendation. So, before I dash off this week’s Tiny Letter (sign up here), let’s all press play on this. It’s like taking a break and applying a NWBHM boost directly to your cerebellum:


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4 thoughts on “Brain of Mutilation

  1. So don’t confuse “having a lot to do” with “having a lot to do all at once” is the trick. I find I’m most productive if I know what I’m doing in the next bit of time and don’t let myself divert. Sometimes you can’t. I mean life etc. but the repeated single threading is the trick

    Lots of folks use “the pomodoro method” to do this or other variants. Here you go:

    For instance this afternoon I have 3 distinct things to do. So scheduled already. But if my flight is late or the guitar strings break externalities. Etc

    As far as favorite app. Clear tune is the one which bails me out in unexpected circumstances more than I would expect. But specialized.

    And what am I pondering? A couple of songs mostly. And now thanks to your title today, the pixies. Which helps with one song but really doesn’t with the other!

    1. Pomodoro method sounds good. I might give that a try. I often feel that I’m way less productive overall with all the multitasking.

    2. I like sound of the Pomodoro, in that it encourages regular prioritising, but in a structured fashion. Wish I’d learned about that 10 years ago; maybe I wouldn’t have had a massive stroke. So, maybe I don’t wish I’d etc.

      Thanks for catching the Pixies ref. Ricky’s so-called brain in action: Brain of Forgetting -> Brain of Mutation -> Wave of Mutilation -> Brain of Mutilation.

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