The everyday blog of Richard Bartle.

11:16am on Wednesday, 9th February, 2005:



I was talking the other day to my elder daughter about distractions, ie. "you can't do your homework while watching TV". She accepted this fact about 4 years ago, but her younger sister still thinks she can conquer it...

The thing is, some people can watch TV while doing their homework, or at least they can have the TV on while doing it. My wife's powers of concentration are such that she could sit through a fire alarm while reading a book. I can say something to her while she's reading an article in the paper and be in another room 30 seconds or more later when/if she responds. Amazing.

My elder daughter (let's call her "Jenny", since that's her name) says that when she's doing her homework she prefers to have music on in the background so she doesn't get bored. She likes pop songs with singing in them, so that's what she listens to. Some of her friends are more enthusiastic, in that they feel music or the radio can help them concentrate more (a habit you really don't want to have come exam time, but there you go).

For me, though, this is impossible. I find it very difficult to concentrate if there's "something" going on in the background (well, I can concentrate, but only on that something). What's more, it's a very particular something: speech. I can completely ignore any other sounds, images, smells, even pain, but not speech. Speech gets my attention every time (note to my students: this is why I get sarcastic when you talk to one another during my lectures).

When I was revising for my finals 24 years ago (arrgh!) everyone else in the tower block seemed to be listening to music and trying to drown each other out. I found my train of thought perpetually interrupted, so I rigged up a headset to listen to my (mono) casette player and put on Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Ballet music (not the suite, the whole ballet music) and listened to that. It's about 90 minutes long, and I listened to it non-stop 4 or 5 times a day. Well, I had it going through my headphones; I didn't actually listen to it.

The thing about orchestral music is that it doesn't have any singing in it. If it has singing (ie. it's operatic or choral) then I would be unable to hear it without listening to it — even if it were in a foreign language. I suppose this is a useful trait to have as a defence against people giving out mind control messages in supermarkets, but it doesn't help when I'm trying to do something that requires thought.

It's only speech or things that sound like words that have this effect. Nothing else. If the speech is a hubbub, so that nothing is distinct, that's OK (although even now, sitting in the Blues Bar at the university, I keep picking up on a conversation between two what look like construction workers a couple of tables away).

I have two rather unusual ways I can block out sounds if things are really, really getting annoying. The first way is to drown it out with a louder sound, which I can do by (I think) causing blood to rush through my ears. This gives a loud (to me) "white noise" effect, and it is actually a noise (rather than an illusion) because if you put a stethoscope to my ears you can hear it too. I picked up this trick when I was a child (I almost went deaf at age 5), but it has two disadvantages: I can only do it for both ears simultaneously, not one at a time; after 30 to 60 seconds it starts to hurt.

My other trick is to switch off my hearing. I'm not sure this is commonplace, but I can turn off my hearing (or indeed any sense, selectively) using a kind of mental switch. I think most people can stop spurious data reaching their brains ("man, this shirt feels good today"), but I can do it under conscious control. I really don't like doing this, however, because I always have this lingering suspicion that I might not be able to turn it back on again. Also, it's dangerous not to be able to hear things.

Thus, I usually resort to headphones when I'm trying to concentrate and there's talking or singing or whatever going on nearby me. This is also a little dangerous, because I am very jumpy. If someone says something to me and I'm not expecting it, I'll jump. This happens a lot in shops, when assistants sneak up and ask "can I help you?", but it also happens when I'm working and my wife comes into the room and says something. If I didn't hear or see her coming, I'll jump (then she'll tell me off, as if I was jumping deliberately in order to annoy her). I have very fast reactions, and I suspect my jumpiness is a consequence of that.

This derailing when I hear speech isn't something that happens all the time. If I'm in conversation with someone, it doesn't matter if there are other people conversing elsewhere unless those people are loud to the point that it would distract anyone (well, anyone with normal hearing). Also, although it happens if I'm reading, writing, doing maths, drawing or most other things, it never happens when I'm playing (single-player) games (although I'm still jumpy). I've no idea why this is. It's not an "immersion" thing, but it does seem to indicate that there's something different about games, at least from the point of view of how my brain processes them.

Maybe I should have filed this under "weird" rather than "anecdote"...

Referenced by Them's Thinkin' Words....

Referenced by A Pink Carnation.

Referenced by Right Handedness.

Referenced by Dream Experiment.

Referenced by Lying in the Sun.

Referenced by White Russian Noise.

Referenced by Overheard.

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Copyright © 2005 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).