Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Tape Loop or Visual Sketch Pad? It'll Affect Your Multi-Tasking

Some of you will remember this from The Pleasure of Finding Things out - Richard Feynman found he couldn't count and talk at the same time, while a colleague couldn't count and read at the same time. Why was this? The answer is a surprisingly helpful tidbit for understanding your as well as others' different ways of taking information 'in'.

"Tukey and I discovered that what goes on in different people's heads when they think they're doing the same thing--something as simple as counting--is different for different people...(when) Tukey was counting...he was visualizing a tape with numbers on it going by...(whereas)I'm "talking" to myself when I'm counting, so I can't speak!"

What Feynman discovered was the Tape Loop and Visual Spatial Sketchpad - the most different routes for storing information. Most people prefer one route much more over the other and some may only effectively have one, but know what you have available can be a powerful tool.

One the most important reasons is that working memory can often get jammed when too much information is coming in at once. If you can flexibly switch modes (depending on the multi-tasking needs at the time), then you take information in more efficiently and multi-task. Always the tweaker, Feynman also began to play with sensory-motor or kinesthetic memory and spatial imagery:"After that discovery, I tried to figure out oa way of reading out loud while counting-something niether of us could do. I figured I'd have to use a part of my brain that wouldn't interfere with the seeing or speaking departments, so I decided to use my fingers, since that involved the sense of touch. I soon succeeded in counting with my fingers and reading out loud. But Iwanted the whole process to be mental, and not rely on any physical activity. So I tried to imagine the feeling of my fingers moving while I was reading out loud. I never succeeded. I figured that was because I hand't practiced enough, but it might be impossible..."

Check out this nice article (with excerpts) about the newly released letters of Feynman from his daughter (here). We were especially moved by his letters of encouragement to others and the letter that concludes the article.

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