Developer Tea

Using Your Brain Without Thinking

Episode Summary

What does it mean to "use" your brain, and how is that different than simply thinking? As developers we engage in thinking all the time, but how can we use our brains better when solving problems?

Episode Notes

In today's episode, we're talking about the limits of our brain and mind shifting strategies to solve problems faster. 

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Episode Transcription

What does it mean to use your brain? And how is that different than just thinking? As developers, we engage in thinking all the time, but there's an entirely separate part of our brains that we might be missing out on using that could be better at solving some of the problems that we face on a day-to-day basis. My name is Jonathan Cutrell, you're listening to Developer Tea and my goal on the show is to help driven developers like you find clarity, perspective, and purpose in their careers. One of the amazing things about the human brain is its ability to process complex topics. This is why we can write code that has abstracted so many levels away from a physical reality that we have to tangibly think about. We can imagine entire universes where we can create stories and keep track of those stories while we read a book that was written with a bunch of characters that are in and of themselves abstractions. These are characters that we may not have ever even seen that specific character that specific size before, but somehow we are able to process all of this information and create meaning out of it. This is an incredible feat. And part of our intellectual superiority that we are aware of, the domination that we have over the world around us, has given us a somewhat distorted picture of what the brain is actually capable of and more importantly where the limits are. And it's very simple to see the limits of your brain and specifically limits that we're going to talk about today. If you want to test these limits, you can try to brute force, memorize the first 20 digits of pi. This isn't a lot of information. It's just 20 digits. And after all, we can process a lot more information than just 20 digits. We can read entire books with thousands of pages and understand them. So what is it about remembering 20 digits that makes it difficult? Here's another exercise that you might want to try that you've probably faced already in your career. Go and look at the features of, let's say, three or four different libraries, popular libraries, or three or four different languages and try to decide which one is best. This kind of information that you have to process is really difficult to do because the number of variables, and that's the critical factor for today's episode, the number of variables that you have to weigh against each other, it can be a really large number of variables. You can imagine, for example, that you're trying to deduce which language should you learn next. Let's say you're a beginner programmer and maybe you're trying to decide which language to learn. You can use variables like the market size. You can try to quantify how much you enjoy that language or even how much you expect to enjoy it in the future. You can imagine that you would use measures like the number of available repositories on GitHub or even GitHub's own report of the trends for a given language. How do you decide what trend to use or how far back to look? These are all different questions that you would have to try to answer and then compare between the different languages. And so now you have this very large list of pros and cons and you can sit down and try to look over that information, but this is where we hit our limit. Our ability to cognitively process or think about something on purpose, we only have so much capacity to think in parallel. This is the critical factor. Remember again, the number of variables. We're very good about thinking about one thing at a time. In fact, most of the advice that you receive on this podcast is an attempt to get you to think about fewer things at any given point in time and reduce the things that you are working on to the simplest form so you don't have to keep a lot of information in your head. But if you are trying to make a decision, a complex decision with a lot of variables, there is another part of our brains that we can tap into. What's interesting is that as knowledge workers, we are paid for using this one specific part of our brain, this prefrontal cortex, the part that's responsible for thinking very deeply and thinking in a very focused manner. But there's another part of our brains that can help us think more abstractly and without the same limits, the cognitive processing limits that you would find in the prefrontal cortex. Lots of studies, for example, one from Carnegie Mellon, support the idea that the rest of our brain is working on the problem in parallel to us focusing on other things. For example, if you expose yourself to all of the information about the various programming languages that you're considering, let's say you have four of them, then you can go and do something totally unrelated to that. Your brain is going to keep on working on that decision problem. Now, we're not really consciously aware of this and there's no way to become aware of it. But once we return to that problem at a later point in time, we may have a different sense of clarity and we might even have what we might feel is a gut intuition, but actually it's an intuition that was given to us by that unconscious processing that's happening in the rest of our brain. So here's the critical thing to take away. First, we said the most critical thing is to remember that this has to do with the number of variables. So if you can reduce the number of variables that you're thinking about, then you can actually process those entirely in that prefrontal cortex. For example, if you're working on a math problem, this is a perfect example of processing in the prefrontal cortex, but if you're working on something that requires much more evaluation, much further discussion about multiple variables or comparison between multiple things, then that's not something that you're going to be able to hold in your prefrontal cortex. The working memory for lack of a better explanation is too small. So the prescription to fix to this problem is to expose yourself to the information, all the relevant information for making a given decision, and then go and do something else. Maybe take a walk, give yourself something that's totally unrelated that won't allow your mind to drift back and try to process that information again on purpose in that intentional and conscious way. When you return from that walk, revisit the information that you saw before, something new might stick out to you, or maybe you're not really done processing that information. This is so critical to understanding how and why we work the way that we do. It makes sense, for example, for you to take a true and complete break from your work, perhaps even right in the middle of your work. If you find yourself kind of hitting a wall, this is a sign that your prefrontal cortex is just not capable of doing what you're trying to demand for it to do. And so it may make sense, then, to put on your shoes and go outside for a walk. And here's the part that I want, if you are a leader in your organization, once you to understand, it makes complete financial fiscal sense to pay your employees for all of their brain power. That seems obvious and may even seem patronizing, but the truth is that we call breaks something that is totally different from work. We don't really have a clear picture for what exactly work is. It makes sense for us to enable our multiple ways of using our brain, rather than just focusing on that one prefrontal cortex way, the conscious working that we do. So I would challenge you to encourage your employees, encourage your direct reports, encourage even your coworkers to take time to make sure that they're using all aspects of their brain, both the conscious and the unconscious, and remind them that you trust them to know when to do both. Thanks so much for listening to today's episode of Developer Tea. Just a quick update here. Developer Tea, like many other podcasts, has been affected by the coronavirus and our ability to generate ad revenue. Here's the reality. We don't plan on stopping this podcast, but we do need your support. I'm not asking you today for financial support, instead, I'm asking you to share this podcast with other developers like you that you think will find value in it. You can do this in two ways. One, you can actually send it directly to them. This is a wonderful way because they're going to take your word much better than they're going to take mine. But the second way, if you don't know someone specifically to send it to, is to leave a review and your favorite platform of choice. If you go to slash devt, that's slash d-e-v-t-e-a, you can leave a review in your platform of choice. This is the best way to help a broad number of Developer To find the show. They're going to read your review, and instead of taking it from me, they're going to take it from you. That's the best way to help this show go through this pandemic. Thank you so much for listening to today's episode, and until next time, enjoy your journey.