This week I saw a quote from Marvin Minsky, said to be from his book The Emotion Machine (which I haven’t read yet):

… the cascades that we call Suffering must have evolved from earlier schemes that helped us to limit our injuries β€” by providing the goal of escaping from pain. Evolution never had any sense of how a species might evolve next β€” so it did not anticipate how pain might disrupt our future high-level abilities. We came to evolve a design that protects our bodies but ruins our minds.

I know exactly where he’s coming from. Last week a bit of a dental filling chipped off, resulting in more pain than was reasonable for such a small thing. Something was clearly Very Wrong, so it was straight round to the tandarts (Flemish dentist) for me. Three root canals later I was nursing a wicked post-surgical insult to my jawbone, and feeling very glad that I avoid taking Paracetamol unless I really, really need it. All told I spent a week quite unfit for anything involving a brain.

This was a timely reminder that although the issue of background stress making the prefrontal cortex unavailable for programming work is central to this blog, there are other things - such as pain - that can also obstruct or assist intellectual function.

The Boston Globe recently featured an article, Don’t just stand there, think, describing studies that show clear improvements in performing a variety of intellectual tasks when the subjects were encouraged to move while performing them:

The brain is often envisioned as something like a computer, and the body as its all-purpose tool. But a growing body of new research suggests that something more collaborative is going on - that we think not just with our brains, but with our bodies. A series of studies, the latest published in November, has shown that children can solve math problems better if they are told to use their hands while thinking. Another recent study suggested that stage actors remember their lines better when they are moving. And in one study published last year, subjects asked to move their eyes in a specific pattern while puzzling through a brainteaser were twice as likely to solve it.

Of course, we programmers already know about this. Here’s the excellent Mr. Randall Munroe referencing it:

It’s even got a name, and a Wikipedia entry - stimming. My favourite stim involves glancing pats to the back of my head - a motion not far removed from shining a shoe. It’s remarkable that I’ve still got plenty of hair on the back of my head, really. So it’s nice to see that there is now quantitive confirmation that stimming helps thought, because it’s one of those things that reveal the strange disconnect running through a society where most of the people aren’t in a position to access their full faculties, most of the time. For example, here’s Dr. Russell Barkley, an ADHD expert who doesn’t seem to recognize anything but focussed attention, getting very worried about stimming on his ADHD Fact Sheet:

2. Excessive task-irrelevant activity or activity that is poorly regulated to the demands of a situation. Individuals with ADHD in many cases are noted to be excessively fidgety, restless, and β€œon the go.” They display excessive movement not required to complete a task, such as wriggling their feet and legs, tapping things, rocking while seated, or shifting their posture or position while performing relatively boring tasks. Younger children with the disorder may show excessive running, climbing, and other gross motor activity. While this tends to decline with age, even teenagers with ADHD are more restless and fidgety than their peers.

Crikey! We can’t have people tapping things or shifting their posture, can we? Where might it end? This kind of thing seems so silly, the so-called expert’s ignorance seems downright willful. This is the kind of thing which makes me think a lot of the ADHD debate is actually based in neurotic responses to healthy children on the part of adults trapped in focussed attention, and demonizing those with mismatching social stress levels as I describe on the pages The Dreaded Jungian Backlash and Other Applications. To add weight to this, it’s worth realizing that many people who technological Westerners regard as primitive encourage children to rock as an aid to study, rather than calling it a “symptom” and reaching for the Ritalin regardless of the effect. Check out this sobering bit of video which lasts for less than a minute, half of which is caption:

The really interesting thing about this is that once we know about it, this disconnect can be found in other places, allowing the possibility of understanding things which are unintelligible without allowing for it. For example, although Dr. Barkeley recognizes focussed attention but seems unaware of the existence of juxtapositional awareness as leveraged by effective programmers and artists or the motile component of effective thought, there are traditional schools of psychology which do describe these things. For example, 20th century esoteric teachers George Gurdjieff and Rudolph Steiner both continue to attract interest from many hackers I’ve interviewed over the years. They both claimed that human consciousness is the result of the interaction of three distinct subsystems, and encouraged students to distinguish the operation of each in order to improve their awareness. Gurdjieff describes three main centres:

  • Intellectual or thinking center. This center is the faculty which makes a being capable of logic and reasoning. This one is located in the head.
  • Moving or physical center. This brain is located in the spinal column.
  • Emotional or feeling center. This faculty makes beings capable of feeling emotions. This brain is dispersed throughout the human body as nerves which have been labeled as the “nerve nodes” . The biggest concentration of these nerves is in the solar plexus.

Note that the “emotions” of the feeling centre are not the base, reactive emotions such as hunger, fear, lust and so on. Those are handled by the moving centre. Instead the feeling centre is about impressions - stuff that we get in an “all or nothing, insight kind of way”. It seems to map very well to what I’ve called the juxtapositional faculty. Does the prefrontal cortex integrate processing from the solar plexus? Recently we’ve realized that a lot of processing does go on in the enteric nervous system - nerves surrounding the gut. As the Wikipedia article says:

There are several reasons why the enteric nervous system may be regarded as a second brain. The enteric nervous system can operate autonomously. It normally communicates with the CNS through the parasympathetic (eg, via the vagus nerve) and sympathetic (eg, via the prevertebral ganglia) nervous systems. However, vertebrate studies show that when the vagus nerve is severed, the enteric nervous system continues to function.

The complexity of the enteric nervous system is another reason for its status as a second brain. In vertebrates the enteric nervous system includes efferent neurons, afferent neurons, and interneurons, all of which make the enteric nervous system capable of carrying reflexes in the absence of CNS input. The sensory neurons report on mechanical and chemical conditions. Through intestinal muscles, the motor neurons control peristalsis and churning of intestinal contents. Other neurons control the secretion of enzymes. The enteric nervous system also makes use of the same neurotransmitters as the CNS, such as acetylcholine, dopamine, and serotonin. The enteric nervous system has the capacity to alter its response depending on such factors as bulk and nutrient composition.

It seems to me that the empirical knowledge of this stuff which Gurdjieff (apparently) gained from traditional Orthodox Christian, Buddhist and Dervish sources describes what we experience (unless we are trapped in focussed attention) and is now at least partially confirmed by modern science. Perhaps it isn’t so surprising that thousands of years of study actually produced something useful!

In the Google book Knowledge of the Higher Worlds: How Is It Achieved? Steiner describes:

… the thinking-brain, the feeling-brain and the willing-brain.

The bizarre thing about Steiner is that he discusses the three brains in the context of clairvoyant perception! Are we talking… like… spooks or something here? I strongly suspect that the answer is no, and here we have an opportunity to resolve one of the great mysteries of the ages. Remember Barkley, recognizing only focussed attention. To him, the fruits of juxtapositional awareness which we can all enjoy if we are sufficiently destressed, and which arrive in an “all or nothing, insight kind of way” without any stepwise “working out”, are mere hallucinations. The human-normal sensibilities of people who are in a position to do juxtapositional awareness are just “procrastination”. Creative people “make things up” - probably as a result of a “failure of inhibition” (Mozart’s reams of note-perfect new music were a kind of complicated epileptic fit). This kind of model is actually quite common - is the way that ISO 9001 is usually applied anything other than an infinite regress of people standing behind other people and telling them exactly what to do?

To such a person, an experienced professional who can look at a spec and know that there is something really difficult in there without yet being able to say exactly what it is, might as well be “clairvoyant”. But there is nothing spooky going on - just the amazing effectiveness of the neural net between our ears when it has a chance to work correctly. This also explains why some people are so keen to advance theories of how creative people “make things up”, when every creative person denies making things up, instead insisting that they just see and attempt to capture what is there. From the limited point of view of focussed attention such statements make no sense, and can be dismissed out of hand!

With these ideas in mind, it’s actually possible to make sense of some of Steiner’s writing in informational and structural terms. I’m not going to offer an example here - or even encourage you to find one - because of the other big problem with Steiner. He was writing in High German, to a very straightlaced turn of the century upper middle class audience that makes Barkley look positively funky in comparision - and the writing gains nothing in translation. Turgid, pompous, long-winded and obfuscated are just some words we might apply to it here and now. But my central proposal here, that Steiner is describing improved cognition of this reality, rather than focussed cognition of a different reality, might be of interest to some people. Of course the audience, knowing only focussed attention, took the description of improved cognition and “interpreted” it as a description of an alternate, spook reality. The relevant graph is not this one from Randall Munroe, correct though it is:

But instead this one from Dehnadi and Bornat’s fascinating paper The Camel Has Two Humps, where they show the two distinct clusters of excellent and average programmers:

Human psychology seems to be a better fit with this bit of pop culture from The Shamen featuring Jhelisa Anderson than the theories of the ADHD experts - so stim away and if Dr. Barkley doesn’t like it… it’s another reason to get rid of open plan!