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I'm interested in trying to squeeze extra productivity out of my background noise. In other words, I'd like to find something that I can have playing in the background while coding or doing homework that will allow me to learn something useful. I've tried having MIT OpenCourseWare videos playing on my third monitor, but I've found that they require too much concentration -- look away for a few minutes and the rest of the lecture might as well be Greek.

I'm a double major in philosophy and computer science, so ideally it would be something related to one of those areas, but I'm not extremely picky. I think the best thing would be something that presents information in a modular way, where each topic is mostly disconnected from previous topics, so I wouldn't be at a loss for not having paid attention to something earlier.

Does anybody else share this interest/have any suggestions? I thought that this would be a pretty common desire among people interested in productivity hacks, but I haven't been able to find anything.

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This is an interesting question, but I think I'd call it passive (or inactive) learning, rather than productivity. Personally, I need to pay attention to learn and/or to not make mistakes. –  Raystafarian Dec 21 '13 at 5:20
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I think what you are referring to is "passive learning", not "passive productivity". Try googling for this instead.

I sort of tried this while studying medicine and physics at the same time. From my personal experience, it generally doesn't work, but it can work if one of the learning tasks is actually about reinforcing something you have already learned and consists mostly of memorizing facts. For example, you can have a cheatsheet or a mnemotechnic drawing taped to your wall and glance at it while you work. It probably works with an audio that enumerates the facts you have to memorize in the background, but I'm mostly a visual thinker so it didn't work for me.

Also, philosophy and CS are both "thinking tasks", there is little memorization necessary, so it's very likely it won't work.

But the basic fact is that our brains are bad at multitasking in general, so learning two things in sequence, by allocating separate time slices to them, will almost invariably take less time and have you feeling less tired that trying to passively learn one thing while learning or working on the other.

Also, even if you are one of the few people that can effectively multitask or, more specifically, passively learn things, without severely decreasing your efficiency, you'll still end up with a very broad but shallow understanding of a lot of things. You end up learning a lot, thinking you understand it, but realizing that your understanding is not deep enough to help you solve a new kind of problem or to come up with new ideas about something. You'll be "a non-creative knows-a-lot that is very bad a solving the problems he encounters despite the fact that he knows A TON OF STUFF". I've met a few people like this and trust me, you don't want to be like them: they constantly "don't get things" despite their vast knowledge and expertise and impressive resumes, are nuisance for all those around them, the real world problems get solved by the "lesser minds" around them that come up with creative and practical solutions, and most of their knowledge is worthless because their peers ca just google something instead of bothering to ask them about it.

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Fair enough, I've edited the question to reflect the suggestion here and in a comment. I don't expect to gain any deep comprehension, but I'm interested in trying to squeeze just a tiny bit of extra educational value out of my hours spent doing work. I kind of expected there to be some kind of tapes/audiobooks designed for just this sort of thing -- Googling 'passive learning' returns results about how to manage classrooms effectively. Any other suggestions as to where I'd look for something like this? –  Patrick Collins Dec 21 '13 at 10:08
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I tried something similar about five years ago, and I can relate my experiences to you. I've always had problems learning languages. While I pretty much aced my other classes just by showing up, I really had to hunker down and STUDY to get a decent grade. As a side note, I think that I really learned HOW to study effectively because I needed to for that class.

At any rate, about five years ago, I was planning a trip to Europe. I was seeing some friends in Italy, but my travels were also taking me to Marseille for about a week, and while I have enough Italian to funtion with directions and basic consumer transactions, my command of French was limited to "Oui" and "Merci". Watching French movies, I could barely recognize it as a language, while Italian films I can can sometimes recognize a phrase or word AS an Italian word that I know (kind of a language cocktail party effect), and I can grasp about 80% of a German film if I watch it without subtitles.

I spent about six months listening to French language MP3s while working. Granted, a lot of the repetition made a bunch of words stick in my brain, and, as expected, I was able to order in restaurants, ask directions, and, most importantly, ask if someone could speak English. Interestingly though, when I FIRST arrived in France and was listening to a conversation, I found that I was able to recognize individual words. I didn't know what the words were, but I could distinguish it from the stream of gibberish long enough to ask, "What does ----- mean?"

From having spent time in Italy, I do know that full immersion in a language is the best way to pick it up, and it took me about a week to ten days to start recognizing words. The fact that I could recognize individual French words the day I landed is, I suspect, due to my listening to a bunch of French prior to the trip.

As @NeuronQ mentioned, passive learning can lead to a shallow understanding. But in my case, even that shallow understanding was helpful. Will this technique work with other subjects that you may wish to learn? I don't know. I've been listening to a lot of MIT open courseware lately, and while I'm nowhere near proficient on anything I've listened to, I sometimes find myself recalling a fact, a study, a statistic...much like I recall a story I've heard on the radio.

The fact is that we retain the input our brains receive...which may by the answer to your question, depending upon how you define "learning". Retention, I think is a different matter. Use it or lose it.

My experiences with language lead me to beleive that yes, passive learning is possible. However, that learning only goes so far. More intensive, repetitive study and/or regular use of the skill is necessary to RETAIN what I've learned.

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