Control context to aid memory

Reader Matt Doar writes in with this Mind hack which uses our brain’s natural ability to encode context as an aid to writing code:


My hack/tip/thing that makes people look at me oddly, useful for when I’m working on a large piece of software, an activity which involves holding a lot of related abstract information in your head. Here it is:

1. Pick one tune or one album that you like.

2. Listen to it while you develop the code. Over and over, on repeat. Listen to no other music. Headphones are a must for the office!

3. Don’t listen to it again until …

4. You need to work on the same code, then listen to it.

Lots of context returns with the tune and helps to write better code. One colleague suggested using scents too. Other colleagues (and my wife) just stared at me, then shook their heads sadly ;-)

I think this is great. By training in a tune-as-context you can then use it as a trigger to help recall everything else that was on your mind at that time. And the idea of using scents instead of tunes might work well – smell and memory are famously intertwined, and there may be a neuroanatomical basis for this: the nerves from the nose enter the brain next to the areas associated with storing memories for episodes. The only drawbacks are that you may not get as many distinct smells as distinct tunes, and tunes come with headphones to stop you distracting your colleagues – there’s no such device for smells (although maybe the message is that smells should be used for pair-programming or group projects).

3 Comments

  1. Posted May 7, 2005 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    My experience with writing has also shown that this can be really effective. A year ago I was working on a play and listening to ‘Computer Love’ by Kraftwerk. Six months later, having not looked at it once, I came back to it, played the song and it all came flooding back.
    But…one thing you need to watch out for is music with lyrics. The brain has been shown to process incoming words automatically. That may interfere with any heavy thinking you’re doing. Certainly I find it hard to do any serious work while listening to music with lyrics.

  2. Ryan Greene
    Posted May 7, 2005 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    I’ve used this trick as well, the Wipeout 2029 soundtrack, as well as the Rob Zombie remix albums both worked great for html coding. It works well for gameplay as too, the Dance Mix fo TMBG’s Istambul Not Constantinople helped get me to a winning season in Speedball for the Amiga back in the day.

  3. onemonkey
    Posted May 9, 2005 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    in a slightly different context, when I got my first tattoo, it took about an hour, it hurt like hell (i fainted once) and during the ordeal they played the Marshall Mathers LP from beginning to end. I hadn’t really heard it before. I didn’t really listen at the time at least I didn’t think I did but possibly I was trying to concentrate more on that than the gouging sensation in my arm.
    In the weeks that followed I heard that album in places where I wouldn’t normally have noticed music. I remember it distinctly in Woolworths and on an otherwise inane and ignorable radio. Each time I felt distinctly queasy and exhilarated. Eventually, I had to buy the album and play it continually, partly to weaken the wooziness but also because it had affected me so strongly.
    Incidently I’m writing code at the moment but when I am done I intend to run away and never look back so I’ll choose not to ruin any music by association.


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