Thursday, October 27, 2005

Monkey Brain…

First something unrelated to the title…

I wonder sometimes about the information people “Google” for… Although I was happy to be #3 in the return for [sexy things to tell your mate]… I have to wonder who “Google’s” for that kind of information.

It’s as if some folks think Google is some sort of ‘mentor’, be it for relationship, career, sex, or other advice. Maybe it is, or it’s becoming that, a mentor. There was a time when we asked our friends, trusted our elders, or actually experimented ourselves, to discover this kind of information.

I can feel a post about the change in the ‘social structure’ the internet has brought on brewing, you’ve been warned.

I first heard the term ‘monkey brained’ about a decade ago. I was seeing a counselor then trying to sort out some problems, and he used the term to describe what was going on in my head.

He explained that if you watch monkeys, their attention shifts, from one ‘interesting’ object to another. That as soon as the new object has their attention; the other object is nearly forgotten.

It was an over simplification, but, in essence, he was right. When something has my attention, it has all of my attention, not an ounce less. However, the other part of my problem was the times where ‘nothing’ had my attention. During those times, my mind would drift back to things in the past, and replay them, analyzing, critiquing, essentially “re-doing” them as if to correct what ever wasn’t perfect the last time.

I’d find myself running one of these ‘instant replays’, of a project I’d done, on a house I no longer lived in, or owned!!

It was after that discussion with the counselor that I began to find ways to quiet the mind, to allow myself to think of nothing, absolutely nothing, even if only for agonizingly brief periods of time in the beginning.

I discovered that the mind (or at least, my, mind) does not “like” to be quiet. It prefers instead to be shifting between thinking about the past, or the future. To be quietly, in the moment, the present moment, is an un-natural state of mind it seems.

I would have never have thought I’d ever be referred to as being “Monkey Brained”… my stock in trade is the ability to focus, for days, weeks, even months sometimes on a single goal. In my self exploration I discovered that being “monkey brained” is exactly what has made me good in the software development field. Good at developing new systems, processes and algorithms, but less than stellar at the maintenance component.

If you give me something new to build, and the latitude to build it the best way I can devise, I’m in heaven. Put me in a room, close the door and slide some nutrients under the door from time to time and I’ll emerge with a pretty cool product.

On the other hand, if you drop a ton of ‘bug fixing’ on me, I’ll enjoy the challenge, for a while, right up to the point that I begin to see the underlying flaws in the original design.

It’s even worse for me if the original design was mine! Then I become nearly obsessed with fixing the design flaw and can easily lose sight of the need to ‘fix’ the current problem first.

I probably have more ideas, as in unfinished concepts, than I do completed projects. Considering I’ve written well over 700 separate applications over the years, the fact that I probably have at least that many ideas written down troubles me at times. As Firehawk said in his comment, it’s probably not healthy.

I’ve found though, that by writing the idea down, it allows me to stop thinking about it, and get on with the important project at hand. Many of the ideas, well their time has come, and gone.. it is nice though to know I had the idea, before it hit the ‘big time’.

I am working; with what ever time I can carve out, on expanding the ‘Meta Object’ concept I forged with Greg so many years ago. I’ve still not found a mechanism for making it sufficiently generic that it would have universal appeal, but, I’ve started implementing a portion of it in the code base on my current gig. With each use, the process becomes clearer and the implementation cleaner.

Tomorrow night, I’ll be posting pictures to the website of the completed cleanup of the shop. I’m very happy with the results, I just hope the trash guy shows up tomorrow as planned, that pile of trash needs to ‘get gone’ before pieces start finding their way back into the shop!!

So tell me, what breaks your concentration? Takes your focus away from what it should be on?


Firehawk said...


I think all projects have their "drudgery" aspects, and it's easy to wander off to more interesting activities when you get to that point. I tend to recoil from a project when it "isn't fun anymore", the initial rush of enthusiasm and productivity is over, but the end is not yet in sight, and there are hard roads to travel before it starts to wind down. I count this, in myself, as a failure of intestinal fortitude.

That isn't the only reason, however. Sometimes, you get into a project, and you know there's something wrong with your methodology, but you don't now what it is. It bugs you, and you feel like half the steps you're taking might be to no purpose in the end. Sometimes, I have to let a project lie fallow for a long time before it finally dawns on me what I was missing.

Then, there are the insistent, white hot, powerful ideas that won't leave you alone. They're sometimes terribly out of sequence, but they are so foreceful that you can't keep them down. For instance, if you have an absolutely cinematic view of a scene from book four of your series that comes back and replays whenever you're having a quiet moment. The trouble is that you're writing book one...

I'm bad when it comes to having far more "great ideas" than I can ever actually enact. I always used to joke about needing to clone myself so that I could have two or three "me's" to follow up on all my brilliant, bound for failure plans. I don't know if that's an example of monkey brain or simply my reach being beyond my grasp.

I think the great thing about "monotasking" is that when you really get into a flow with a single "thread", you can feel this rush, as if you're a little smarter than normal. That focus allows your brain to "overclock" for a while, and the results are often impressive. The downside is, as you said, that you can totally let other aspects of your life slide. I think that everyone who's successful has the ability to do this, but some might not know when to turn it off.

Another interesting post. I look forward to seeing what you did in your garage.

We've been doing a bit of that sort of work, as well. We just got a new washer/drier set, and the area behind them was awful. I had to put down some floor tile and finish the wall after work. Still, it's funny how you feel better when you know that some nasty little corner has been improved, and you won't have to confront that particular mess again.

Take care, man. I'll look for your next post.

Greg said...

Curiously....Yahoo showed a link from a thing called...Thong my site. Now I haven't a thing against thongs (well perhaps on men ok at least on me) but I certainly wonder about www links. Now back to distractions.....

Chloe said...

Firehawk stole my answer, except said it much more eloquently than I would have.

Bill said...

Firehawk - "when you really get into a flow with a single "thread", you can feel this rush, as if you're a little smarter than normal"

Exactly!! I absolutely live for those moments. I can recall times where I could 'feel' pieces of code fitting together like pieces of wood in the hands of a master cabinet maker. In those moments, despite whatever it took to get there, burnout, exhaustion, etc... were at best just a 'concept'.

There's drugery, as you said, in all things. Like you, I have a real problem completing things once they cease to be fun. This garage project is a perfect example, it stopped being 'fun' a couple of days ago, it's in the simple cleanup/put away phase now, and I have to force myself to keep going. In truth, this place is helpful in maintaining my resolve.

Once I've told y'all I'm doing something, I feel honor bound to finish it!

"I think that everyone who's successful has the ability to do this, but some might not know when to turn it off"

Spot on again.. I know for a fact, that during the times when I've enjoyed the greatest 'professional' success, I was neglecting my personal life, and not just a little bit. Eventually, I'd neglected it so much, that when I tried to return, it was no longer the life I remembered. That experience forged my belief in the absolute need for 'balance'.

"it's funny how you feel better when you know that some nasty little corner has been improved"

A great deal of satisfaction as well! You've also reminded me of the fact that I never finished the drywall work behind our washer. I need to add that to the list of things I need to finish!

Greg - Thanks for one more mental picture I didn't need! So what is distracting you these days my friend?

Chloe - Well thanks for letting me know that you were thinking along those lines!

Always good to hear from all of you!

Trevor Record said...

Google is my mentor. It has taught me how to be a man.

I'm sorry to be the one to break this to you, but I'm in QA right now Bill. I'm the reason people like yourself have bugs to fix. I understand if you don't want to talk to me.

Comfort Addict said...


Good post. Many years ago, I broke up with a girlfriend who was into something called Siddha Yoga. As a parting gift, she gave me a subscription to a newsletter of readings. These Hindu-oriented readings spent a good deal of time on quieting the mind and losing the self. It was very interesting.

I definitely identify with the monkey-brained mode. I think that IT people excel at this (it's part of what makes them good). I also think that our computerized and image-driven society has exacerbated this tendency.

A guy in a seminar I went to once hooked me on the habit of writing things down, too. He said that it helps free your mind and makes you feel more peaceful. I agree.

Thanks for the good post.

Bill said...

Trevor - I like the QA folks! If they do their job, mistakes don't get out the door! It's much easier to fix things while they're still in development, than after they've shipped!!

So... you'll have to work harder than that to get me to stop talking to ya!

CA - Thanks, I'm glad you enjoyed it. I think there are several personality aspects/abilities that make folks good in IT/IS... multiple interests is certainly one... extended focus is another... One that's not always so obvious is the ability to 'troubleshoot'... to quickly remove all the items that are not at fault and sort to the most likely items quickly.

It's the reason I always say an great auto mechanic can easily also be a great developer.

The eastern philosophies, have helped me, and in more ways than I would have ever thought possible. I try to encourage folks to explore them, but I try and not be too 'preachy' about it.

As always, good to see, and hear from, both of you!