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Space to think

April 26, 2024

Henry Abbott

Springtime birdsong and budding flowers have returned, giving me an excuse to turn off my music, put away my headphones and walk across campus with open ears. Usually, I listen to music automatically when I walk about campus. This week, I have challenged myself to listen to less music, and the quiet has given me more space to think.

My headphones are like a fifth appendage. In the winter, when I prepare to step outside to move between buildings, I put in earbuds before I put on my coat. I fill every empty moment with auditory stimulation, stuffing my ears like I stuff a carry-on bag for my flight home. Every pocket needs to be occupied. More things in the bag is better, right? But when my carry-on bag is jam-packed full of miscellaneous “maybe” items—books that I may or may not read, a cozy but redundant sweatshirt and a bonus pair of earbuds in case I lose the others—it becomes harder and harder to access the things I have. After I finally sit down in my seat, buckle my seatbelt and half-heartedly feign attention to the safety announcements, all I really want is my eye mask and my earplugs. But I packed my sleep accessories at the bottom of my bag, optimistic that I would get more rest the night before. I plunge my hand down into my bag, but my arm will not fit between my sweatshirt and my extra books. There is no space for movement. By stuffing my bag full of things, I made it too difficult to access its contents. I turned my backpack and the items within it into a static block, instead of the dynamic receptacle it should be—capable of responding to my needs.

When I fill my ears with constant music, following the same belief that more is better, I make my brain more static, too. With less mental space to think, I find myself frustrated by my reduced creativity and workflow. In a vicious negative feedback loop, when I am having a hard time doing my work, I will put on my headphones and start playing upbeat music to drag myself along. While the music boosts my morale, it fills some of the space I need to do my best thinking. It is as if my good ideas are at the bottom of my carry-on bag, and music is filling up the bag, making the ideas harder to bring to the surface.

We utilize empty space, like the semiconductors in our iPhones use electron holes—empty space where electrons can go. Semiconductors, usually made of silicon, make up the electronic machinery that enables the computing power of the magnificent iPads and laptops that Bowdoin gives all its students. These extensions of our brains make millions of little decisions and connections, just like our own brains do. To integrate incoming information and make decisions, they use transistors, which contain p-doped and n-doped semiconductors. N-doped semiconductors have extra electrons floating around which can carry charge from one place to another to communicate a signal. P-doped semiconductors are missing electrons, so instead of electrons carrying signals from one place to another, the electron holes (empty spaces that electrons could fill) carry charge from one place to another. In reality, the holes are not their own entity but are just negative space (well, positively-charged “negative” space) where electrons are missing. But these empty spaces are so important to the function of semiconductors and computing that physicists refer to the holes themselves.

Transistors use the combination of n-doped semiconductors (with extra electrons) and p-doped semiconductors (with extra holes) to make a decision based on input. Due to their physical properties, transistors can modulate whether one charge signal is passed on depending on another charge signal it receives. In this way, our computers are able to integrate different inputs and make complex decisions. They could not do that if their electron holes were filled.

We, likewise, need open space to make new connections. Research shows that we are more creative when we have less sensory input. We need space in our minds to make connections and come up with new ideas. One study found that noise impairs our creativity in poetry writing, and another study found that environmental stimuli decrease creativity while increasing cognitive load. The term cognitive load refers to the idea that our working memory has a limited capacity. Our sensory memory filters out a lot of the input from our environment, but the music we are listening to makes it into our working memory will add to our cognitive load, decreasing the open space left in our working memory.

Listening to music feels good, but abstaining from it might give us more room for our thinking. I have found that allowing quiet, as I walk around campus, as I brush my teeth in the morning and as I do my work, has enabled me to be more creative, give more attention to maintaining social connections and do work I am prouder of. I encourage all the chronic music-listeners, social-media browsers and you-name-it-stimulus-seekers to carve out more open space. Just as empty “negative” space is important in p-doped semiconductors, it is also important in our cognition and our lives.


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