Sunday, June 12, 2011

Your brain on an ipod

Bonding with my coworkers.
Fun fact: David Little never smiles with his teeth. It's because he doesn't have any.

There are two types of people in this world:
1-those who bite into a whole apple, and
2-those who cut up an apple before they eat it.

Oh, 3 groups. David Little can only eat apple sauce.

The first group--the Goethes--see things as coherent wholes. The second group--the Democrituses--break things down into their constituent components.

The same is true of ultramarathoners. Some people start 100-milers with pacing guides, split goals, and a run-from-aid-station-to-aid-station mentality. Others appreciate the integrity of the undissected occasion. Neither group is better. If you can run 100 miles, then I think you're a stud. I am in the second group. I like the bigness of a thing. I like when adventures are so huge it's hard to wrap my imagination around them. But recently, my training has become Democritian. I am running more intervals, speedwork, and hill repeats. I take things one at a time, and I think it's working. I am also doubling every day. I wish I had felt this strong when I was attempting to race 50Ks earlier this year. 24-hour events require more consistency than raw speed. I also wish training in New Haven weren't such HECK. I love Virginia.

But what I'm really writing to say is that your brain is in danger.

Last year, my professor told our class that a man was struck by an airplane while he was running because he was listening to an ipod and didn't notice the plane plummeting down from the sky. Everybody immediately turned to me--the token runner--and frowned, in a group sigh seeming to communicate "YOU'RE NEXT." My fate is sealed to death by an airplane.

I had a few questions, like:
1-Wasn't there a breeze from its descent?
2-Did the sky darken above him?
3-How loud was his music?

But I will never die by airplane because I do not run with an ipod.

Our culture has a serious issue with always needing to be mediated. We are disinclined to unplug ourselves and detach from noise, but we need silence. Our brains require it.

Silence is when your memories are strengthened and consolidated. Memories, technically speaking, are pathways of interconnected neurons, or Hebbian synaptical loops. The more you retrace a pathway, the more it is solidified as an indurate retrievable item. Memory is subcortical, and sensory stimulation is superficial. The significance of this is that the primacy of sensible immediacy precludes depth of processing. So if you are listening to things or visually engaged, and you are wholly captured by those senses, you are less able to traverse Hebbian pathways, and your memories dissipate prior to crystallization.

I do appreciate that this is dense material. Thankfully, I speak two languages: English (Academic) and English (Thug). So here is the digested, thug version of the above: Be quiet, yo, cuz if you don’t, yo’ brain aint gonna have nothin’ in it. Dat’s what’s up. Or in the words of Eminem to Rihanna: “I can’t tell you what it really is, I can only tell you what it feels like.” This is because his sensory stimulation is primary and is precluding his data retention. Or, at least that is how I interpreted the song.

Furthermore, our need to incessantly listen to music is resulting in an elevated dysthymia. By this I mean it is more difficult to feel happy. For example, running is a positive reinforcement. It results in the production of endogenous morphine, or endorphins. Music has the same effect. The coupling of the two reinforcements diminishes the reinforcement of each item on its own. So if you lose your ipod and cannot listen to music one day while training, the run will be less enjoyable than it would have been otherwise. Many races have a No Ipod Policy. Do you want to start a race already enjoying the event less than your competition? No way, no way.

And perhaps most importantly, I think it is a valuable thing to unplug and spend time alone with your thoughts. It is weird that we think we need entertainment, and I think you forfeit a lot of your individual agency if you keep listening to other people's lyrics, rather than your own thoughts. Don't run with an ipod. Or if you must, turn off the sound.

In other news, there is a giant rat on the street near my office. It is like Godzilla.
It's the simple things that make life exciting.

Happy running! Have a great week.


  1. I love that you are making the most out of not being able to run for a long time all at once. I love that you are "taking things one at a time." I love that you are HERE!

  2. Excellent post.

    Short story to illustrate your point (I think). So, I never run or bike (heaven forbid) with an Ipod either, but I downloaded some new music last week and really wanted to listen to it. So, I hopped on my bike to ride to work with one ear phone in. It went so well, I tried it again after work. I crashed. Took them both out, turned it off and put the ipod in my backpack, never to be worn on the bike or during a run again. (Ok, slight exaggeration. I might wear it in a long ultra, at some point, for some amount of time.) Mostly, I just like to run and think or not.

    -BS (and not as in Blog Stalker, haha, just thought of that. have a great day!)

  3. Interesting article with some valid points. I have to say, however, that some of us don't need more time to think. For those of us who spend all day at a job that's low in stimulation and then go home to an empty house, the last thing we need is more time with our thoughts. I like to listen to podcasts while running. At least I am being entertained or edified while getting my exercise.

  4. Best. blog. on. the. PLANET!!! :) Def color me Goethean re: ultra training and racing. Big, detailed plan is not me. Nearly all my 100-mile fails happened when big, detailed plans didn't work. Same with the long timed events. Way more fun to just roll with it.

  5. I love this post (and wish I had a giant rodent on my street - preferably hedgehog shouting "Dimsdale!" a la Monty Python)! Not really of Goethe or Democritus camps myownself; I autistically notice only elements of a whole, which I take to be separate wholes, combine them into an incoherent, incorrect, but logically consistent framework and... then make fun of them. Good for laughs, not good for interpersonal relationships or employment.

    I not only run in silence, I only speak 200 words per day, tops. And I never smile in photos.

  6. I'm totally Goethe. I didn't even look at the map or aid stations when I ran my 100. I didn't want to know how close I might be to anything tempting. I knew I had to think and run as if the course were linear.

    Great points on silence. I know people who have to have the TV or music on all the time.

    I rarely run with an iPod. I love the sounds of my feet on the trail, my breathing, the birds, the wind in the trees, distant traffic being muted by the woods ...
    Exceptions: 1. sometimes when I'm on a dreadmill (but usually only if the music in the gym is dreadful) 2. I always carry one during an ultra (but I don't use it til at least the second half).

  7. I love this! I actually think running with an ipod takes away from the enjoyment of the activity overall. I like my wacky thoughts, singing out loud to songs in my head, and paying attention to whats going on around me. That's part of the fun!

  8. Im in absolute agreement (include the coolness of the union rat ). I almost never run with music, but save it for emergency situations when i need an extra injection of adrenaline; if i used it everyday, the twice-a-month "gaslight anthem" energy boost would be much less effective. more importantly, i use the time for thinking, buddhist meditation, and musing on everything important in life. when else do i have time to do that? with an ipod, i'd also have no thoughts for my blog, andthen where would the world be?

  9. John Lennon also said that free thought was really important for your soul. Or was it Paul McCartney? We can only confirm that with one of them.

  10. Sabrina!
    All I can say is Thank you!: For your reflections, assumptions, and rouge sharing! I got sucked into reading your blog via a recent Sophie post and have happily frittered away over 30 minutes roaming you awesome ramblings!

    I am happy to sense that you are a complete person with elite running performances and passions who has developed a fabulous quick wit and talent for expression! I love the 2007 photo of Masochist with Nikki and Krissy and Monica and you and I. That day completely rocked!

    I know your super high running performances are in your future and I hope to at least run in your shadow for a few of them! Best wishes in our upcoming race plans!

  11. This post is encouraging and maybe a little enlightening, since I lost access to my home CD player for a couple of weeks during the move from W'burg to Stephen's house. I'd noticed my mood declining and berated myself for being depressed. I wasn't depressed, though; I was lacking endorphins! Thanks for the reminder about the physical power of music. I will use it intentionally and only for good, and I promise to dance whenever it's on! ;)

  12. Aaaaand, about a week later, I feel guilty every time I turn on my stereo. Sometimes I absorb the things I read too deeply.

  13. "I also wish training in New Haven weren't such HECK. I love Virginia."

    Tsk, Tsk, Tsk (sp?) Sabrina. Yes, all of us "New Haven Ultrarunners" love Virginia too. Still, there are good trails to run here, it just takes work to find them. We find them :) When in doubt, ask a Bimbler!

  14. There is something so soothing about your thoughts, there is no doubt they get washed over down to their purified essence in all the running you do. Just being able to immerse in them for moments at a time through these entries is such sweet delight. You just really never know what is on the other side of one's eyes. /// Joe S.