dumbbells_adjustedIn the past I have heard people say that the mind is like a muscle. This brings up phrases like:

‘If you don’t use it you will lose it’

For some reason I only thought this applied to the older generation so I never paid it much thought.

Recently I feel as if I have woken from a bit of a lull and am once again giving my brain a workout after giving a bit of time off. It feels great. But, just like physical exercise, it is hard work.

Only now do I get the reference to the mind being like a muscle. The more you exert your brain the better it becomes at handling the exertion.

Why the lull?

With hindsight I believe that grief can have a profound effect on concentration and possibly even brainpower for many years.

Another analogy that springs to mind is that the brain is like a computer. I fully believe this and while thinking about grief I began to wonder why the word process is used in reference to grief. This intrigued me as the brain of the computer is the processor.

When my Mum passed away, nearly 5 years ago now, I feel that from that moment on my brain was constantly processing the grief of this unfortunate turn of events.

This has had the knock on effect that for an extended period of time my mind wasn’t running at full tilt. So as my concentration was reduced I couldn’t exercise my brain as much as  I used to.

I don’t pretend to understand how grief works but I do feel that the majority of my processing has been done. I still miss her, and I regularly talk about her, but there comes a time where the grief starts to fade and the amount of processing is slowly reduced.

The turning point occurred when I realised that I no longer felt challenged. I’m not sure how it got to that stage, but the important thing is that, after sitting down and working out what was getting me down, I realised that I was no longer exercising my mind as much as I would like.

What Next?

So how do you start giving your brain a better workout? Unfortunately I don’t have the answer to this yet.

For now I am throwing myself into whatever I am doing at any particular time. Whether it be at work or for this blog, writing doesn’t seem to come naturally to me.

The trick appears to be focus. Concentrating on one thing at a time rather than multi-tasking. I had always believed that multi-tasking was a great idea as you could do more than one thing at the same time so you obviously get more done.

I no longer believe this is true as the more you spread your focus the lower the level of concentration on any one thing and so the less brainpower that is being used. This may be acceptable for some menial tasks but anything that requires a bit of mental effort requires your full attention…

This post has been especially hard to write. It has brought up a lot of memories and has been quite emotional.

At the same time though I feel that it has helped me once again. By putting things into words I have released some of these deep emotional thoughts and feel that a little weight has been lifted from my mind.

Image: Creative Commons License jerryonlife



Very well worded as usual.

Michael Ludgate

I think you’ve already got the best method of mental exercise – just get on with whatever it is you’re doing. The analogy is a good one, but is often not explored.

If I do bicep curls, then my body will be better able to pick something up and move it through a specific range. However useful that is, it wont help me run faster or jump higher. Likewise if I play ‘brain training games’ then I’ll get really good at… playing brain training games; Just like overwork on a specific body-part makes you look disproportionate, it’s important to work out mentally brain-wide on muscles that are actually required for every day activities.

Exploring the analogy further, consider how a body builder’s physique is very expensive in resources – requiring special amounts of sleep, food and supplements. A well worked mind requires large amounts of time for learning more information, filtering, linking and association.

As a programmer, I’m surprised you didn’t explore multitasking in a computational sense, as per the brain/CPU line of thought. The common understanding of multitasking being the idea of multiple activities happening concurrently. But a CPU doesn’t actually perform any task at the same time, it just produces a more efficient list of small jobs that allow several processes to get closer to completion. Multitasking is thus the ability to perform task triage and provide an appropriate time slice – interrupts happen.

    Pete O'Shea


    When I wrote this post I did think about about a computers version of multitasking but it didn’t seem to tie into the way I multitask. If you split the job up into little bits the computer can just act on each individual job with it’s full attention regardless of whether or not it relates to the previous job it was handling. With our minds there is a comparitivley large change over period if we have to mentally switch tasks. Here is an article about Human Task Switches that you may find interesting.


Michael Ludgate

Thanks, that was an interesting read.

Though I take his point about the average of a set of sequentially processed tasks completing sooner – the whole thing is a gross over simplification. He doesn’t observe that a computer’s primary reason for processing an interrupt is that a relatively slow task such as I/O is being performed in the current process. CPU analogy withstanding, it’s like waiting for someone to get back from lunch and not performing any work during this time. When a collection of 10min tasks exist.

Considering the time to ‘write memory to disk’ for our minds, makes parts of my last comment seem fastidious; My perspective is 1 main project, with a collection of minor tasks (I’m sure this will change soon). The tie-in to programming projects is appreciated and of personal concern.

    Pete O'Shea


    I get what you are saying but I read it a bit differently. If you are working on multiple programming projects at the same time then even a simple 10 minute task will take much longer if it’s on a different project than the one you are currently working on.

    The best example of this that I can think of would be if you are working on a development project in Delphi for a period of time and then you are asked to make a simple change to a PHP script for a website. Even though you may know both languages well there is a certain amount of time required for your brain to switch between the two. This switch time gets bigger the more complicated the change is. It may only be a minor change but it could be in a fairly confusing section of code that badly needs refactoring. This time then has to be doubled if you have to go back to the original project afterwards.

    The more immersed you get in a project the less you can keep in memory about other projects or languages. It’s all still in there somewhere but not necessarily instantly accessible. I’ll admit that I don’t think that my memory is as good as it used to be but I have definitely experienced this mental changeover first hand.

    Anyway thanks for the comments, it’s nice to get a conversation going,

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