Turn That Off, I’m Writing

By Neuroskeptic | March 21, 2011 7:15 pm

I listen to a lot of music.

Music is playing in the background most of the time whether I’m on the computer or not (thanks to my old, poorly-designed but still faithful Shuffle). However I’ve noticed that I find myself turning off iTunes when I’m writing.

Right now, for example, I have just put this song on pause because I’m writing this post (a post about why I paused that song – bit of a chicken-and-egg situation there.) I can’t write with a song on, because the lyrics would be distracting.

However, I don’t always do this when I’m typing. With some songs, and some kinds of writing, it’s OK. I think this is how it works:

Instrumental songs are obviously OK. But I don’t listen to many.

More interestingly, songs I’ve listened to many times are fine. I’ve just put on this which, according to iTunes, I have listened to no fewer than 140 times over the last three years. And this is fine. No distraction. I think the reason must be that I’m so used to the lyrics that the language part of my mind no longer needs to work out what they mean.

Some kinds of writing are compatible with songs. Blogging isn’t and writing “important” emails aren’t but a lot of emails are. Which I guess means that I’m not really putting much effort into writing them. I must be typing on auto-pilot, just repeating stock phrases (“Sounds good”) rather than actually using my language areas, or at least, not using them very hard.

Psychologists are fond of using these kinds of selective distraction tasks to map out the architecture of the mind e.g. verbal ones distract verbal working memory but not spatial, and vice versa. So this is all pretty standard stuff, but what’s interesting is that it’s not intuitively obvious.

It doesn’t feel like sometimes when I’m writing my language faculty is hard at work, and other times it’s not. It feels like I’m thinking about what I type all the time. It’s just typing. Sometimes I’ll be replying to a bunch of emails, music on full blast, and then I’ll find myself putting it on pause when I get to one particular email; but I couldn’t tell you in advance which one it would be. It just feels right. Better turn the music off for this one, this one’s serious - though even that’s putting it too strongly. It doesn’t feel serious, it just feels like the music needs to be off.

Our concious experience is smooth and seamless even though we’re constantly switching between using different parts of our brains. This becomes all too evident in the case of brain lesions, which can rob us of capacities we never knew we had, because they were always there when we needed them. Some lesions, for example, render you completely unaware of anything that happens to your left. It doesn’t seem like we’re using a different part of our brain when dealing with stuff on the left as opposed to the right – but we are.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: blogging, music, philosophy, you
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08624878877207159349 Jared Stein

    No surprise that I corroborate this observation with my own. Not only do I have to turn the (primarily lyrical, but sometimes intense classical) music off when writing certain kinds of documents, but also when coding certain kinds of web scripts, and definitely skating certain kinds of difficult obstacles or ramps. The latter is interesting because, consciously, at least, it's not that the music distracts me from the physical task, but from the auditory connection between the environment and my skateboard.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11463939299038902233 avestin

    Not only do I not turn off the music, but I put it on, if it's not already on.
    When writing, doing an experiment in the lab, reading a paper; whenever I can, I put music on.
    I listen to my iPod all day in the lab; pipetting is a lot easier/more pleasant with music on.
    Writing-wose (whether science-related or something else), this also doesn't suffer from having my music on. Though at times (not frequently) I can get so concentrated I won't even notice the music (only when it's gone).
    The only times that I will turn music off, is when there is something pressing and stressing that I need to deal with (but not because it'll distract me, but rather cause I lose the mood for music).
    As for music with studying; well, usually (in particular if it's material that requires remembering details), I will simply put ambient, electronic, calm jazz or some instrumental rock or metal music. For some reason “quiet” can distract me. I need at least some ambient “noise”.

  • JM

    Nicely written, and very resonant with my own experiences (and a lot of other people's, I'm sure). When I write, I find that I can only listen to instrumental music, or songs in a language other than the one I am writing in. Makes me wonder if there are studies on bilingual music listeners/ writers :)

  • http://www.neuropoly.org DJ

    Thanks for the post; its an interesting phenomenon. I spent many years as a professional musician (as a drummer) before coming into the field of science and find that I can't focus on writing, reading, working while listening to music that has anything remotely complex going on rhythmically. It's totally distracting for me as I automatically start to analyze and deconstruct. Wish it wasn't that way sometimes, but its like a reflex at this point. Although its a different cognitive domain, seems to have to with some kind of auto-redirect of attentional resources.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    JM: That's a good point, foreign-language songs are generally ok. Even though I speak a bit of French and German, I find they don't distract me. I suspect this is mainly because when they're sung, on top of music, I struggle to understand them – but it's interesting that my brain doesn't seem to automatically try to understand them. Whereas with English I have no way of not parsing the lyrics.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18375351988564714680 Constant Writer

    That makes perfect sense. I can't write “important emails” either with music on. I definitely can't write any blog posts or stories with music on unless it's quiet enough to be background noise. The only time music actually helps is for writing papers for school. The loud jarring sounds seem to get my brain unstuck from the academic writer's block that always manages to sink in when I've got a paper to write–particularly one that due the next day. But usually, once I get going, I have to turn the music off or on really low volume. Music is good for other tasks like washing dishes or reading a magazine, but not during writing most times.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06555584654985797945 Woolly Stuff

    That's funny – I can't write unless there's music on – specifically, my partner is a music producer, and when he's editing drums loudly, I find I go into 'beta' really easily and write tons. But it also works with any music – could be stuff he's working on, including vocals, or anything else.

    I can't work when it's quiet. It makes me get up and go and do anything but write.

    I think it creates a space for me, like a buffer from the rest of the world.

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No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.

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