Look my eyes are just holograms
Look your love has drawn red from my hands
From my hands you know you’ll never be
More than twist in my sobriety
Tanita Tikaram

What does “twist in my sobriety” mean?
Dawn French

It turned out Dawn had a point. Lots of people didn’t know what “Twist in my sobriety” meant. Clearly there are millions of people out there who’ve never had a relationship with an “interesting” person!

Here’s a trickier one:



What on earth does that mean? Is it a patronizing advice to avoid prejudice, some kind of New Age encouragement to abandon rational thought, or what? In terms of the neurological factors which I argue are central to understanding why programming is hard, I think it’s a comment about the styles of cognition people use, depending on whether they are usually forced into focussed attention by background social stress or not.

Here’s a problem which can be solved easily (if tediously) by focussed attention executing a series of steps, each of which can be stated before it’s performed:

391 / 17 = ?

Here’s another one, which cannot be solved by focussed attention, because we cannot clearly recognize the problem as a member of a specific category, so we cannot start executing a series of steps, stating each one before we perform it:

4, 9, 25, 49, 121, ?, 289, 361, 529

Of course, readers with a well-fed inner geek will try a whole bunch of possible starting points which they’ve collected over many years of doing silly problems like that. Each possibility will be explored a certain amount, perhaps learning something which will suggest other possibilities before they chuck it and try something else, and an experienced puzzler will try loads of possibilities. They might get it that way (it isn’t too hard) and they’ll get an “Aha!” moment. But if not, the puzzler must resort to the way they did it when they were kids, before they gained the experience. They’ll try various basic manipulations, while looking out for patterns. They’re still waiting for an “Aha!” moment, because it’s an “Aha!” kind of a problem.

In the neuroscience terms, they’re using the semantic and associative network - a neural net - between their ears. With the simple division problem they’re using focussed attention. Perhaps we might think of using the brain that focussed attention way is rather like running Windows 3.1 on a swish new Intel processor - the fancy stuff doesn’t get used at all.

The semantic and associative network can be forced into focussed attention mode by stress. So a person who is under stress at the time is going to find it much more difficult to do the second, series problem. The stress might come from some local annoyance, which is going to impair everyone’s performance. Alternatively (I argue) the puzzler could be unconsciously driven to generate and seek social stress, because they’ve developed a tolerance (addiction) to the skewed brain chemistry of stress.

A person who is addicted to the skewed brain chemistry will be stressed enough to keep them in focussed attention most of the time. They won’t be in a position to have “Aha!” moments, so they won’t expect them, or rely on them. They will be very expert at putting problems into categories, looking up the category/response tuple that has been drilled into them by rote, and performing the response. Sometimes, people get so engrossed in this way of doing things that when they can’t place the problem in a known category, they’ll either conclude that the problem is wrong, or if they’re stressed enough they’ll pick some category pretty much at random, be unable to perform the response, then panic and attempt to avoid blame. These are behaviours which we can frequently observe happening around us.

Now those “Aha!” moments that pop up when the semantic and associative network has done its stuff and reports a result aren’t just confined to geeky maths puzzles. When a poet compares his girlfriend to a summer’s day it isn’t a literal correspondence. He isn’t arguing that her kneecaps map to the morning coffee break in any way. Even so, his semantic and associative network has proposed the simile, and if on reflection he decides there’s something in it, he’ll start dipping his quill and scribing.

People who are fortunate enough to retain the full use of their semantic and associative network unless they are immediately (or recently have been) stressed, often get frustrated by people who do not. They assume they are looking at people with the same kind of cognition (at the time) that they are using themselves. It’s a reasonable assumption, but it’s wrong. The others don’t have access to the the hair-trigger word association football that might cause them to muse, “Mmm… kneecaps… hubcaps!”:



If the person is in focussed attention most of the time, they won’t realize that they’re limited to a categorize/respond kind of mentation, because they don’t have anything to compare it to. So the cartoonist is giving sensible advice from one point of view, which is not communicating anything at all to the people the cartoon is intended to benefit. Anyway, there’s really no need to advise people to stop seeing labels, because it’s the wrong target. If the cartoonist could reduce the intended beneficiaries resting stress levels enough, the full richness of their surroundings would become evident to them anyway.

It isn’t a matter of choice. Software engineering managers who exhort their staff to “Do better!” without showing them how are making that mistake, plus the added mistake that in our focussed attention based culture they don’t even realize that the cartoonist’s intent is correct. We can’t find solutions to complex combinatorical problems by pushing labels around. We need to drop the labels and poke around the full richness of the problem domain with our semantic and associative networks.

That’s why gelled teams, where each person does have access to their semantic and associative networks (at least in the protected conditions set up by enlightened or lucky leaders), tend to develop their own internal slang for aspects of the problem that present themselves powerfully enough to be seen or pointed out to all.

Trivia A: The sequence is the squares of primes, so the missing number is 132 = 169.

Trivia B: That Billy Shakespeare must have heavier cease and desist than Prince. Not one of his gigs are on YouTube!