Monday, March 27, 2006


In other words, procrastination. Or actually not really. Mind-cleaning seems to be necessary, anyway. Which could be just another excuse to feel better about procrastinating, but before you judge me, let me explain. What I mean with mind-cleaning is the kind of activity you need to engage in when your thoughts get so tangled that you no longer know what the initial question was. Logically, that's when it becomes impossible to find answers.

I've been in that situation a lot lately. The challenge of the last couple of weeks has been trying to sort the technical minutiae of the analysis procedures I've been building. So, more than often I have found myself staring into the red brick wall of a dead end. I would be tinkering with pieces of code or some calculations or whatnot, and all of a sudden I would realise that I've been trying to fix something that isn't broken, or trying to use fixes that won't ever work because of some other fixes I had made earlier etc. Being a grown-up, sensible person, instead of losing my temper or all of my hope, (or indeed instead of starting over without any new ideas), I would take a step back and clean my mind. Sometimes so effectively that it would take literally hours to get back to work, but there are risks in every strategy, right? :-)

There are many methods. Reading the latest news is one, writing a blog entry another. But the better you can engage your mind in something totally different from your work the better. This is the key to the success of Sudoku. All you think of are 9 numbers... In addition to Sudoku, I find the online quizzes quite effective. The "classic" challenge is of course the news quiz, or the Uutisguru (News-guru). I'm back on the top-20's of the monthly rankings thanks to this latest data-project. :-) The engaging part of this quiz-format (Who wants to be a millionaire -style, a question and 4 options for answers, the faster you answer, the more points you score) is that even though the pool of questions is relatively limited and tends to repeat itself after a few dozen games, the game still maintains its addictive nature, since to get top scores you also need to be fast.

In fact, you have just about a second to give the right responses if you want to get to the very top. Which means that you need to learn very quick associations between questions and their answers. For many of the questions, I don't need to read the question at all, since I know which must be the right option just by seeing the answers. So I glance instead of spending time reading. With one glance I get an idea of the question, hopefully recognise it and then sweep down to find the right answer, following it with mouse. Sometimes the right answer is easy to find, since it is the shortest / longest of the options. So you save the time you would spend reading the options, just go for the one that is correct, based on the shape.

The makers of the quiz are aware of these tactics, since they tend to device nasty traps, like using answers of similar length or appearance, or in questions about years tend to use the right answers for one question as the wrong ones for the others. There are also some questions that have so much text or where the dates for instance are written out so that you actually need to read them thus losing time. As in "Who wants to be a millionaire", there are 3 lifelines, but if you need to use them, you are pretty much screwed for getting a good score. If you have done well otherwise, there might be time for a quick "50-50" but that's about it. Having to think for an answer is bad, since it takes too much time.

And that's why these quizzes work as mind-cleaning. Nothing beats good old asoociationism as a way of getting rid of congestion higher up in the cortex!

(Pic: my brain (there is one, hoorah!), fMRI photo taken last Thursday in MRC-CBU in Cambridge)

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