This post is in the Executive function category

Dear Reader

I had a nasty experience with teaching students about speakers and PA systems today. Ohm’s law1 came up and I spouted a whole bunch of stuff which simply wasn’t correct. Despite being unsure of my theory, I didn’t stop myself until one of the students questioned me.  Basically I got myself “stuck” on a track I couldn’t get off and will now have to rebuild some student confidence in my abilities to teach.  The discussion made it to the online forum so I feel somewhat exposed.  Students were also aware I got on the wrong bus home – not sure where they got that from – which may help or hinder their perceptions. Most of these students are now aware of my research and my personal interest, at least to some degree, and I’m not yet sure if that’s a good thing either.

These kinds of events are not uncommon in my life when I am stressed.  It is partly, I am guessing, stimulatory overload and lack of self censorship – which would be executive function issues, conflict avoidance and probably some others.

There are parallels in the creative work I am pretty strongly aware of. I know that I get “stuck” like this when I’m on my own – programming synth patches, rhythm composition, automating mixes and that sort of thing, but I am convinced that in collaborative situations I am more willing to be “wrong” and accepting of other musical ideas, because my musical philosophy has always been that there is no right way.  I think that there is also a role playing issue here. In the classroom I am expected to be right but in the studio I expect the musicians to be at least as talented and creative as I am. I also believe that I am more able to tell how ideas are being assessed in the studio – how the others feel about them. Hopefully this is something I will be able to observe in the videos.

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The videos and other observations seem to be confirming that I do have a noticeable tendency to stay on a fixed path which is a strong indication of an Executive Function weakness.  I’m not going to call it a one track mind because that has other connotations, but I suppose there is a parallel.  EF in this case is supposed to take the role of moderating appropriate levels of concentration, flexible thinking and task switching along with planning and time management.  Within my private musical work, the tendency to over-work an element of composition or production is pretty clear.  I go over and over a single sound, phrase or idea on a search for something.  I don’t think its perfection because the results don’t seem to improve.  I more believe it is like a compulsion – I am forced to continue until something occurs to break the spell, which is an uncomfortable and anxiety inducing moment.  I work increasingly with headphones when at home due to the constraints of family life, and I have noticed that the equipment itself provides this spell breaking stimulus – my ears get hot and uncomfortable.  If I’m on speakers my family appears to tell me “politely” that “we’ve heard that bit a thousand times now, isn’t it right yet?”.  Like a child that gets grumpy having to put his toy away ( Executive Function develops in childhood), I resent these interruptions, but in fact the distractions of creating at home may well be helping me out in this respect.  In the past I could spend as much time as I wanted on something – I could throw out 90% of what I did.  These days2 I have to keep 90% because I don’t have time to do anything that is not a “product”.

In the studio I am definitely less prone to this “sticking”, but it does still happen.  There are a number of reasons for this, the primary one being time constraints, where when someone else is the time keeper. In addition to this I am reasonably conscious that I should not be doing too much myself – that I am the producer or engineer rather than the composer.  And I do sometimes see the eyes glaze over.

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In one interview with “Mary”, with whom I have a long term collaborative relationship, this aspect is discussed. The transcript below is slightly modified, as the conversation ranged and then returned to the topic.

Interview with Mary © C.Webber 2009

"Interview with Mary" © C.Webber 2009

CW: … I think I become lost in the process when I’m “making”, that is so fascinating for me. I’m process driven rather than outcome driven I think, and that process of doing it and adding stuff together and getting that little tiny detail right is so absorbing, and you’ve mentioned to me sometimes and we’ve started something and then I’m like, “ok I want to work this idea for a while. And then I disappear into my own head for a couple of hours and you’re left wandering what to do. I’m thinking of a couple of times when we were working in [the studio] and you made comment to me sometime later that there were times when you needn’t have bothered to be there … there were a couple of times when you surprised me by getting up and walking out of the room when I was doing that, “I’m working on this , I’m just going to do this for a while” and you getting up and going “Ugh!” and going off to the kitchen …

Mary: no, but sometimes I was just joking and just going to go off for a walk or something because I knew that at that point there was nothing I could do with you because you were just doing your thing

CW: because I’m doing my thing …

Mary: what can I do ??

CW: [laugh] I probably should have chosen other times to do my thing

Mary: well you see this is the thing, that you now see that process. That’s probably right, “while you”re here we can work on things that we can do together and then I’ll work on this in my own time”

CW: but your process in the contribution to the project is instantaneous. Its “I sing” or “I have a lyric” or whatever. For me all those little things require time, its actually a different process as well

Mary: so that’s your process of going away [mentally] and working on stuff, like I have to internalise the actual music

CW: I guess, yes

Mary: that’s your process of observing and making sure its right

CW: but I feel like I observe it from inside when it’s being made, I observe it from its construction, rather than looking at it from “above”. Once its made it’s no longer mine, I’m no longer involved in it.

The interview indicates a break-down of Executive Functioning where the task of the moment has become so prioritised that nothing else matters.  In ASD this is known as “rigid thinking” and is a common situation where a person can not easily move or transition between tasks.  In this instance the needs of others are affected, but it can extend to personal needs such as food and sleep, and have significant impact on wellbeing.

  1. current equals voltage divided by impedance. Important in setting up multiple speakers in PA systems so you don’t blow up the amplifiers []
  2. the last 14 years really.  Now there’s a point – it has taken that long for me to figure this out! []

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