Modeswitching and Arcane Rituals

In the last weeks or so, I have noticed an interesting phenomenon: Between what I find interesting with headphones and music playing, and what I find intersting without lie worlds. One is interested in finding patterns, systems and problems, and the other one in shallow distractions, avoiding strain, and resting.

The easiest way I can explain this to myself is as a by-product of operant conditioning. My old job had a rather awful open-plan office and culture, which made my headphones and the associated music a lifesaver. I even started calling my fancy active-noise-cancelling headphones the “open-plan office tax”. I think this is perfectly good and reasonable, but also doesn’t account for everything.

In some ways, headphones constrain the problemspace, the parts of the world that you have to pay attention to. If you have ANC headphones, and a groovy-but-monotone techno mix playing (Say, Len Faki, Ellen Allien or something similar), the world that you are paying attention to has gotten a lot smaller. There’s endless poetic waxes on the creativity-stimulating effects of constraints, and this might just hit some of the same notes. My eyes stray a lot less, my thoughts take a lot less detours.

I think trying to over-explain this is a misguided path. Everyone has some weird habits, rituals, half-conscious pathways that make sense for them, that would crumble if they tried to explain it to someone else. The few people I can explain this to without being embarrassed about it are my closest friends. Half-arcane rituals that have nothing to do with the subject matter, that nevertheless work because they make you feel like it’s going to help.

In the larger picture, deliberate self-conditioning (“habit building”, if you will) is a very useful tool, and while taking things too far on occasion will cause brittleness, a lot of it is irreplacable for tricking ourselves into acting like we want to act. If I find that putting on headphones makes my work easier, I will put on headphones more frequently. If I can consistently trick my brain into working the way I would like things to work, I can scarcely see a downside.

A tumblr post that I can’t find without more effort than I would like to put in, went something along the lines of:

Your brain is made of uncooked sausage. Do whatever it takes to trick it into doing what you want, whatever cheats and tricks you can find.

This gave me an impetus to actively start looking for these shortcuts, because in the end, the effect is much the same. If I can fix my mood for the day by putting on techno1, writing words into a text editor2, and grooving along, why not do it? I’m also deeply interested in learning what other people have found, the irrational-seeming shortcuts to their own brains that always go unmentioned because of how ridiculous they seem from the outside.

  1. Right now, I’m diving into the discography of I Hate Models for making just the right kind of continuous-groove techno I need for this. 

  2. Hi! You’re my guinea pig!