Home > Critic-At-Large > Brain Waves, Fried Eggs, iPhones

Brain Waves, Fried Eggs, iPhones

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader

2014-10-04


As any stay-at-home parent will tell you, there's simply no previous job experience that can adequately prepare you for the demands of watching young children in the home. Being a caregiver is an incredibly difficult, complex occupation that requires a myriad of shills that most parents simply have to learn on the fly. There's absolutely no way to prepare yourself for the gig beforehand, especially if you decide to add a second or third child into the mix. Trying to maintain a sense of order in a home with young children is like trying to outflank a flood or corral a pack of raccoons: it's an impossibly futile exercise.

But I will say, that there is one real-world job that probably gets closest to giving you the best chance to handle the parenting gig with success, and no, the job isn't doctor, social worker, teacher, Marine Corps sergeant, psychologist, maid, or Fuhrer. It's being a short-order cook. Short-order cooks have by far the best skill set to deal with young children and it's not just because they're used to working in high-stress environments or because they're accomplished at providing, quick, nourishing meals (though those certainly help.)

Good short-order cooks have an almost uncanny ability to handle multiple, time-sensitive tasks at once; their "internal clock" has been so finely honed and developed that they know, intuitively, when it's time to prioritize the most sensitive procedure and put it on the front burner. This is an essential skill for parents to master, and most learn it pretty quickly; they know, for instance, that they have, say, 18 seconds to get the coffee started before their 2-year old sets fire to the couch or the crawling infant on the hardwood floor bonks his head. Short-order cooks already have a highly-developed aptitude for accomplishing the kinds of procedures that all parents have to complete in a single day.

There is a fascinating New Yorker article from the mid-2000s that chronicles the virtuoso cooks who prepare breakfasts in massive Las Vegas hotels, and the article ("The Egg Men," by Burkhard Bilger) explains how the occupation actually changes the way the cooks' brains function; the neuro-scientist Warren Meck, of Duke University, believes that these cooks develop separate neural circuits for each individual task at hand. Since most accomplished breakfast cooks can prepare up to twelve separate dishes as once, their brains become an impressive wonderland of intricate functionalities. Meck is almost in awe of the breakfast cooks that he calls "master interval timers."

Reading about the breakfast cooks has made me realize that maybe I shouldn't be such an old, reactionary fossil when it comes to technology, for, obviously, technology has been changing the way the modern brain functions. And maybe, just maybe, that's not such a bad thing. Maybe the brains of people born with access to modern technology are evolving in a way that's as impressive as the new circuits that have been developed in the breakfast cooks.

I remember watching my daughter study in high school, and seeing how many tasks she accomplished in one single study session on her computer she had her lesson on the screen, but also she had music playing, she was answering texts, she was surfing the internet, she was responding to Facebook. To me it seemed impossibly difficult, and I couldn't imagine having the concentration and focus to get anything done, yet she seemed totally at ease with handling the myriad distractions beeping about her. In fact, she seemed to thrive in that environment, and she subsequently became a pretty accomplished scholar in spite of (because of?) all the technology that she was employing.

It's still bewildering to me, though, and I have to grudgingly accept that there's simply no way I can ever duplicate her capacity for success. My old-man brain simply can't keep up. I recently purchased a smart phone, finally, and I've been startled by the changes that it's caused in me, none of them for the better. Simply being plugged into a smart phone has made me more distracted I have a much harder time reading books, for instance, I simply don't have the patience for deep reading that I always used to. I can't listen to podcasts, either; I thought I'd be able to have them play in the background while I worked on something else, but I've found that it's completely frustrating to me and I can't focus on either. I thought that when I got my smart phone I'd be able to use it in a wholly productive way, but I'm afraid my cognitive apparatus isn't equipped to handle anything that's that new, that disorienting. And I'm certain that if I had been born with a computer in hand, it wouldn't even be an issue, that I wouldn't even think about it at all.

Actually, I've discovered that the biggest challenge for me in a plugged-in world is finding the time to think creatively. If I want to write a story or plot out chapters in a proposed book, I've found that I need to remove myself physically from the internet and all cyber-based technology and just hide for a while. I need to go for a walk, or sit still in a darkened room and let my subconscious breathe a bit.

I'm certain that there's an entire generation of artists who are quite capable of creating noteworthy works while simultaneously engaged in a dozen other tasks, but I know I'm not one of them. I remain, resolutely, unfortunately, an old-fashioned, one-trick pony with a one-track mind.

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