On distractions, memory and ideas.

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I don’t know what’s the matter with people: they don’t learn by understanding; they learn by some other way—by rote, or something. Their knowledge is so fragile!

— Richards Feynman

I’ve stumbled upon a book, or should I say that the book stumbled upon me, called “The Pleasure Of Finding Things Out” by Richard Feynman. The quote above is from another of his books: “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman”. Both of the books are stories and bits of Feynman’s life, his ideas and experiences and boy, he had many.

This post is about “on distractions, memory and ideas”, mostly because those are things I’ve been thinking about a lot lately and as they always say “the master will come when the student is ready”. There’s also the idea that the master is always there but the student never notices him until he’s ready. I believe both are true in one way or another and Feynman is one of those masters.

Master of what, you say? Well, of living curiously, more specifically of living life with curiosity. I’ve always thought of distractions as something to be avoided, as the enemy of productivity or the antagonist of good work, but hey, turns out is not like that. Distractions are a necessity to do good work and sometimes distractions are the good work itself.

Richard Feynman had many cool stories to tell, most of those are not about his theories and the way he created the equations that allow quantum physics to bla bla bla… No, most of them are about that time he got distracted (and quite obsessed) by or with something, from picking on locks and opening safes while being the best at it, to counting the time on his mind while doing all sort of other stuff to check if the inner clock could be tricked. Really, that guy had a million of super interesting distractions, but that never stopped him from doing his work.


In “A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science” by Barbara Oakley, she explains that some studies strongly suggest that we have 4 working memory slots or “storages”, these storages are used to keep information readily available while our brain saved that into long term memory. The storages are in the middle of short-term and long-term memory, easier to access than long term and more time enduring than short term.

Think of that time when you were studying a particularly hard subject, such as math or coding, or when you were reading a complex storyline such as the Game of Thrones series. Your brain was storing all this information in one of those working memory storages so you could easily access them, without spending time sorting through your long term memory to find out who Daenerys was or what a function did in your program, all this while it was being stored away in long term.

The thing about these storages is that, if we truly only have four of them, then we need to be careful on what we use them for. On a typical day you might need to remember what groceries to buy, what are your to-do tasks for the day and about that discussion you had with your partner. Those are three working memory slots being used right there, leaving only one left to do useful, meaning work. This, in a nutshell, is why we try to avoid distractions like the black plague, because we simply don’t have storage for them! We either store those funny 9gag memes or the idea we had about that post awesome blog post.

I can’t think of how many awesome ideas I’ve had in the middle of day just to forget them due to not writing them down, probably because my mind was filled with 9gag awkward penguin memes or something.

Our mind is great at “chunking” information down, connecting dots and recognizing patterns, that’s why it’s so much easier to remember storylines rather than historic dates. Those four slots you have can be used differently. Feynman stories of obsessively and cool distractions almost always have a purpose or are connected to his main work, he uses most of the nonsense in a way that will help him get to the bottom of a more serious problem.

When we connect different parts of the same puzzle together, we are chunking information. Our mind can’t store 50 pieces of a puzzle, but it can store many that are already connected.

Distractions are necessary to let our mind wander and for our consciousness to let go of a problem. Oakley, as well as many, many other researches say that most of the hard problems are solved by our subconscious, either while we sleep or simply take time off that particular problem. That’s why you get your best ideas in the shower or while driving, it might seem a nuisance since you’re likely to forget them, but that’s how it is, our subconscious mind is great at solving puzzles but it can only work when the conscious is not pushing it down and silencing it.

Distractions, memory and ideas are all connected, they work in unison if you let them. The problem though, is that the society we live with in which a Netflix distraction can turn into a 3 hour marathon, social media is omnipresent and being “multi-tasking” has become the norm, even when science and everything else yells at us “but your brain didn’t evolve to multitask you ape, resource gatherer creature!“.

Everything must have a purpose and this includes distractions. Memory works by storing information in a variety of ways and solving puzzles with the knowledge gathered. Ideas are the atomic juice that drives us forward and helps us use our amazing new world in amazing new ways. Distractions should be used wisely too, not to willingly spend our time away in a pool of madly entertaining internet, but to find momentary shelter from a working day, just like we sleep in bed to recover strength but don’t pretend doing meaningful while at it.

Distractions are great, but as the stoics said, we don’t live this life to enjoy the pleasures of the body but to endure the hardships of the mind.

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August 30th, 2016
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