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This reminds me of an anecdote from Feynman about what sorts of mental things he could and could not do while counting seconds, and how it was different for different people. His counting was internally verbal and he could do anything that didn't require him to speak or anything else that was internally verbal.

On the other hand, a mathematician he knew was able to do lots of mental things while counting that Feynman couldn't, and wasn't able to do other mental things while counting that Feynman could, because the other guy counted visually.


Feynman is great. After reading about this a few years ago, I spent a few minutes trying to teach myself how to count with other senses, like touch or taste.

I picked an ordering of foods and imagined the transition from one to the next.

Touch is easier, since the ordering is already there. Just look at your fingers and imagine a sensation in each finger as you count. Easiest is to actually move your fingers though.

Touch is also much faster than visual or audio. With Chisenbop, I can count at around 15Hz, which is faster than I can look at the things I am trying to count.

Related to this, I've discovered what I can and can't listen to depending on the task.

When I'm writing, I can't listen to music with lyrics or podcasts. That's not too surprising, since I'm obviously using the parts of my brain related to processing language for my work, so I can't process language in the background.

When I'm doing grunt-level programming or debugging, I can listen to music with words or podcasts.

But when I'm doing architecture-level program design, I can't listen to music with lyrics or podcasts. For me, this kind of thinking is too similar to writing.

I read Oliver Sachs Musicophilia: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Musicophilia-Tales-Music-Oliver-Sack...

In it he points out how some people with Alzheimers or other degenerative brain damage can use familiar music to co-ordinate a sort of 'flow' a rhythm of activity.

When I am coding it is like this. I can put on a familiar record that know back to front and then suddenly it is over and I haven't heard any of it but it has marshalled my flow for me.

Put on an unfamiliar playlist or a 'radio' style thing from last.fm (or the radio even) where I don't know what is going to be played next) and it trashes my flow.

So to get stuff out of Spotify I have to make and learn playlists (as it trashes the order of all the LP's which I have burnt into my head from years of listening to them on vinyl....)

Interesting. I can try that with Metallica's older stuff, as I have been listening to it for over 15 years.

I'm the same, I just have the same playlist on repeat for months, thanks for the link to the book!

Some nights, when I lay on my bed trying to sleep but my mind is still racing, I try to calm down by counting or something that requires concentration in order to forget everything else. I noticed how I cannot count without having another train of thought talking or replaying a song I was listening to the same day. It's like having two threads running in parallel.

Trying to count visually is almost impossible, I lose track before reaching twenty. As a friend of mine put this, “I can't count sheep to sleep because they are always cheating.”

Have you tried thinking about the process of breathing ?

Ask yourself, "how do I know I am breathing?": there is some physical sensation that tells you that you're breathing, whether it's a whistling noise in your nose, the feeling of air rushing past the tip of your nose or the back of your throat, the feeling of wanting to return to the neutral position that your ribs give you during a deep breath.

For a lot of people, just one of these sensations is the most dominant one. If you can pick one, just lie quietly and concentrate on it and notice it every time you take a breath.

This process is more about noticing sensation than doing any kind of cognition, so I find it very useful when trying to take a mid-day nap (I haven't had trouble sleeping at the end of the day since I had children, funny that).

stop reading if you're not a smoker...


"mind racing before sleep"? If you smoke, try not to smoke at least 1 hr before you go to bed.

Ha, I never tried to count visually, it's funny. I also tried to think about number names sequentially trying not to drift in their other representations.

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