Friday Brainstorm 3 🧠

Metaphors, music (again), and family.

Hey people -

Happy Friday and welcome back for the third issue of Friday Brainstorm!

This week, we’ll mix up the order of things:

  • using metaphors to explain things 💡

  • why I wrote a series on music for productivity 🎹

  • thoughts on moving back home with family again 👪

Let’s get into it.


Using Metaphors to Explain Complex Ideas 💡

I recently came across the work of Maggie Appleton, who describes herself as half illustrator and half digital anthropologist. She makes illustrations that help explain abstract, hard-to-explain concepts from the world of technology and programming:

But how do you draw a thing that’s not a thing? With visual metaphors.

I want to share some insights about visual metaphors from Maggie’s case study on how to draw invisible programming concepts. But first, why should be care about metaphors?

Metaphors We Live By is a classic book written in 1980 that changed our understanding of metaphor and its role in language and the mind. Most people think metaphors are restricted to the world of literature and words, but metaphors are actually pervasive in everyday life -

“The way we think, what we experience, and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor.”

Metaphors are the building blocks of our thinking and central to how we visualize abstract ideas. Thinking about concepts like freedom, teamwork, capitalism all rely on metaphors that we have in our head. We imagine them visually by relating it to other things we’re more familiar with.

That’s all a metaphor is - understanding one thing in terms of another. By using something we know, we have a starting point for understanding something we don’t know as well. In Maggie’s words,

“In metaphor nerd terms we call Thing A the source and Thing B the target. The source is like a frame that we look at the target object through. It "frames" how we see Thing B.”

Diagram of the source frame and the target object

The classic example the Time is Money metaphor. Think about how we talk about time in our culture:

  • Missing the bus cost me an hour.

  • I’ve invested a lot of time into this project.

  • I’m running out of time.

In many ways, money is the lens through which we view time.

Time is money image

This highlights the aspects of time that relate to money:

  • time is something we can count

  • time is something we can give and take

  • time is a limited resource and a valuable commodity

In many ways, the fundamental values of a culture emerge in the metaphorical structure of the language. Since we’re fairly materialist, it makes sense that money is the lens through which we view time. But think about how our everyday language would be different if we viewed time in terms of a flowing river. It wouldn’t make sense to use words like cost, invested, or running out.

Anyway, metaphors are a really powerful way of explaining complex ideas because

“we get fine-grained control over what's most important about the concept, and cut out all the noise.”

In my writing, I’m striving to use visual metaphors to help explain some of the neuroscience in simple terms. Here’s an example from the music article:

I’m using the image of two levers with “green zones” to represent the ideal state for cognitive performance. When you’re picking out music for working, I think it’s helpful to imagine music nudging your mood or arousal by pushing the lever left or right.

Hopefully, this way of thinking about metaphors can help you better explain things. If you want to learn more, make sure to check out Maggie’s full article!


What I’m Writing 🎹

While writing the music series, I got a critical piece of feedback. They asked why me why I personally care about this topic? Why am I writing about this and why should anyone care? The personal element was sorely missing, so here it is:

In the last decade, the role of music in our lives has grown dramatically. When someone asks me what music I listen to, it’s hard to give just one answer anymore.

I have all kinds of playlists for different parts of my life. I like hip-hop to get me pumped up for a workout, I like lo-fi when I'm working, I like light jazz in the background when I'm eating dinner with family, I like R&B for getting in touch with my emotional side, and the list goes on.

The common thread across all these contexts is that I use music to help me regulate how I'm feeling. It nudges my mental state to something more appropriate for the occasion. Whether I'm in a bad mood or a good mood, tired or energetic, emotional or logical, music helps me adapt to the situation. I think about what state I want to be in and find the right music to get me there. It's kind of like having a superpower.

But how do you find the right music? Over years of trial and error, I think that I have a pretty good intuition for what type of music works in most situations. There is one exception, though - when I’m trying to be productive.

It’s really hit or miss. There are days when it’s the perfect focus playlist and I can work for hours on end. But then the same playlist is inexplicably irritating and distracting the next day when I’m working on a slightly different task. What gives?

I was sure that many people felt the same, so I did a quick internet search only to find half-researched, pop-psychology articles that all contradicted each other. There was no simple, practical guide that explained how to choose the right music for reliably getting into the zone.

It’s a shame because music is a powerful way to regulate your mental state. Even elite athletes regularly use music for getting themselves primed for peak physical performance. Surely, we can use the same principles for peak mental performance.

This is what led me to write this series in the first place. There is plenty of scientific research on music and cognitive performance, but so far, nobody has made it accessible and actionable for someone with no scientific background.

Let's change that.

The second part of the series is out this week. Check it out!

🔁Part 1: The Basics 🔁: Why does music help you concentrate? What makes good background music? How can music be distracting?

🆕Part 2: Brainwaves 🆕: What is the deal with YouTube videos claiming to give you 'super intelligence' and apps promising to get you into a flow state?

⏩Part 3: Coming Soon ⏩: What is personalized, adaptive music? Will algorithmically-generated music replace music as we know it?


Life Update 👪

Having graduated college semi-recently and moved into my own place right after, I haven’t been living with my family for almost 5 years now. This isn’t that long a time for most, but bear with me.

The pandemic and ensuing lockdown has caused many people I know to move back home with their families to quarantine. This obviously causes a bit of tension because we aren’t used to living with them anymore.

Personally, I feel like I revert back to childish habits when I come home - remnants of my high-school self that I haven’t seen in a while. I also associate my family’s home with relaxation since the only times I came back were for holidays, breaks, and so on. This makes it incredibly difficult to get anything done there, so I just stopped trying altogether in the past.

That being said, I was really nervous about quarantining with my family. It was hard to imagine not going insane working from home alongside my parents and two younger siblings. But I’m here now, and it’s… surprisingly fine.

I’m thankful that this pandemic has forced me to learn to live with my family in a healthier way. It’s helped me feel more like myself by overcoming the mental blocks I had with being home. It’s also given me a chance to spend more time with my family, which I’ve been thinking about a lot.

Around Christmas time in 2015, Tim Urban put out a short article that helps visualize the time you have left with the important people in your life:

It turns out that when I graduated from high school, I had already used up 93% of my in-person parent time. I’m now enjoying the last 5% of that time.

And for those who have a strained relationship with their parents, think about friends:

The same often goes for old friends. In high school, I sat around playing hearts with the same four guys about five days a week. In four years, we probably racked up 700 group hangouts. Now, scattered around the country with totally different lives and schedules, the five of us are in the same room at the same time probably 10 days each decade. The group is in its final 7%.

It’s weird thinking about these things as percentages, but it also puts things into perspective. It’s sad to think about, but you’ve probably lived through 90% of your time with these people.

Luckily, this isn’t set into stone. You could extend the time you have with someone. In that sense, I see the lockdown as a blessing in disguise because it’s added a few months of precious time with my parents that I wouldn’t otherwise have.

This framing has helped me a lot with thinking about my relationships. Life is short.

To close out, here’s a quote from Paul Graham:

Relentlessly prune bullshit, don't wait to do things that matter, and savor the time you have. That's what you do when life is short.


I hope you’ve enjoyed this edition of Friday Brainstorm - it’s a bit more sentimental than usual, but I’m just trying to keep it real. Drop me a line if something spoke to you - this is way more rewarding for me when it’s a two-way street.

— Shamay