We can explain why programming is hard, but to do so we have to assume the whole culture is cognitively lopsided, and it gets chronic within the very organizations we form to get things done. This implies that there are plenty of other interesting applications.

Lab Technicians.

Interpreting some kinds of biopsies involves looking for patterns of cells using a microscope. The task is similar to the Embedded Figures Test. Perhaps otherwise able technicians can have their accuracy reduced by too much stress. From time to time path labs do discover that they have been producing low quality work, and distress is caused to many as sometimes thousands of patients have to be recalled for testing. Cognitive impairments due to stress within the organization might explain that. Perhaps technicians should check themselves with an embedded figures test before and during shifts where they need pattern sensitivity.

Police Officers

We have a model where we can expect bureaucracy to grow, and to include lots of stress raising procedural double binds, foward references and assumptions which do not match common situations. This is because it maintains an addictive level of background social stress. People caught up in it feel they simply must engage in such behaviour, although they are unaware that the axiomatic rightness they feel is more to do with the dopamine hits than any objectively observable perfect harmony. Police officers are not the sort of people who want desk jobs - the addictive payoff has no allure for them. According to this model, they should make good programmers where they develop an interest. They should normally find it easy to be aware of their surroundings which are often hazardous, and react flexibly to reduce the danger to themselves and others. However, British police have recently been complaining that when they arrest someone they now have to perform 5 hours of bureaucracy. Apparently it is all very complicated.

We’ve got good reason to believe the bureaucracy has no legitimate need to be baroque, because we have a model that stress is an addiction, which like entropy only drifts up. Where it can’t be radically simplified it should be reordered to minimize officers’ exposure, because it is dangerous to reduce an officer’s awareness and then expect them to perform hazardous duties. We might as well require them drink alcohol and wear a target on their back.

This is a good example because it’s mission critical and unlike many bureaucratic workforces, where stress addiction produces the “pain” associated with Deming style Real Quality, the police officers can be expected to welcome the initiative with dancing in the streets.


Hospitals are another mission critical environment, where the mutual social policing of stereotypical behaviours is very strong. Cognitive issues as described are an interesting root cause of anecdotal examples of hospital blundering. We’ve all heard stories. Measuring and controlling stress in hospitals could produce significant improvements in care quality, particularly when so many horror stories involve an escalation of problems, and a sense of complacency surrounding those involved.

General Administration

I’ve described the ways that background addictive stress can distort cognition and become normative within organizations. There must be a great deal of value to be released by doing radical, cognitively informed business process re-engineering producing a virtuous circle through improved awareness. For example, this collection of memos documents the loss of 25 million families person details including bank account details and childrens’ names. The case was internationally famous. The first page refers to “a reluctance to provide data in the filtered form requested”. (The writhy language of this stuff recalls The Cluetrain Manifesto!)

The subject of the reluctance to which the wretched pwned scribe refers is found on page 6:

I do not need address, bank or parent details in the download - are these removable to make the file smaller?

You might think that would be pretty easy. It came out that this stuff is held in an Excel database (because even toy computers can cope with the magnitude of 19th century government psychology these days). So they’ve got to run the SELECT with some field names in it instead of putting *. The response is on page 5:

I must stress we must make use of data we hold and not over burden the business by asking them to run additional data scans/filters that may incur a cost to the department.

So the reason the sensitive stuff was even transmitted - let alone bunged in the ordinary post and lost - was because a manager was “playing roles”, and cannily protected the worker-seconds it would have taken to add the field names to the SELECT statement, at the cost of proliferating the sensitive data.

I should say it’s been a fashion in the British civil service to use the word “business” since Mrs. Thatcher’s day, although the bureaucratic concept of businesslike behaviour is not quite like anyone else’s. It primarily appears when there is no other excuse for unco-operative arguing about trivialities - in a stress raising way of course.

We can understand this with the horrible idea that these people were, at least in part, driven to do this to themselves, because they’re hooked on miserably passing the buck around.


There’s a connection between the kind of people who are good at programming, and being diagnosed ADHD. The Jargon File says:

1994-95’s fad behavioral disease was a syndrome called Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), supposedly characterized by (among other things) a combination of short attention span with an ability to ‘hyperfocus’ imaginatively on interesting tasks. In 1998-1999 another syndrome that is said to overlap with many hacker traits entered popular awareness: Asperger’s syndrome (AS). This disorder is also sometimes called ‘high-function autism’, though researchers are divided on whether AS is in fact a mild form of autism or a distinct syndrome with a different etiology. AS patients exhibit mild to severe deficits in interpreting facial and body-language cues and in modeling or empathizing with others’ emotions. Though some AS patients exhibit mild retardation, others compensate for their deficits with high intelligence and analytical ability, and frequently seek out technical fields where problem-solving abilities are at a premium and people skills are relatively unimportant. Both syndromes are thought to relate to abnormalities in neurotransmitter chemistry, especially the brain’s processing of serotonin.

The neurotransmitter is dopamine, not serotonin. The people skills here can be seen as a mismatch with people up on the Brooklands banking of self-generated stress. After all - and it is telling that this point is usually overlooked - geeks don’t have people problems with other geeks.

There is no doubt that stress is reaching epidemic proportions in schools, with obsessive, proceduralized testing being a major stress raiser. For examples, see BBC article Primary children ’suffer stress’, Guardian articles School stress hits new peak as exams loom and Five-year-olds suffer test stress. It’s madness to subject children to such stress. After all, we know that stress causes permanent changes to the brain, predisposing the person to be less able to cope with stress in later life - PTSD in Children and Adolescents provides the lurid details. Even without the incessant, stressful testing which stress addicted bureaucrats feel simply must occur, children would be stressed just by being near their teachers, who are so stressed that the best ones are resigning - see BBC article Stress forces teachers to quit.

It’s interesting that in the Netherlands children are not stressed out like this - see BBC article Why are Dutch children so happy?. Also in the Netherlands, it is not allowed to advertise ADHD treatments, because it’s not recognized as existing! See Netherlands panel rejects ADHD diagnosis as a mental illness.

It seems to work well to see ADHD diagnosis as motivated by three things:

1. Authentic cognitive disgreement. A child who is part of the minority retaining access to juxtapositional thinking will see things differently, and this will come out in subtle ways. A common story is the child confronted with many simple arithmetic examples. After a few, he (it’s usually a he) notices the patterns, identifies the principle, and can now do the general case. We don’t forget structured understanding, so it’s there for keeps. The child comments (reasonably) that he doesn’t see the point of doing any more, and the teacher is outraged by “refusal to learn”. He protests that he understands simple addition now, and is done for lying too.

Often children get things wrong because they can’t believe that the task they have been asked to do is so pointless.

2. The Dreaded Jungian Backlash. Where groups are nursing a given level of socially generated stress, the person free of addiction won’t be playing their part in the maintenance dance, and people will be conditioned to resent them. Without an explicit reason for the mutually experienced dislike, a demonizing groupthink will emerge. Gelled teams can trigger this in stress addicted organizations, and children can trigger it in schools. There are some extraordinary tales of petty spitefulness in the online ADHD literature, and they fits the picture. The system surrounds itself - each tale includes a further diagnosis of “oppositional syndrome”

3. Distress. Given the above, it is hardly surprising that many children become distressed, particularly in the process and bureaucracy, testing obsessed educational systems of today.

The irony is that - until they become distressed and disturbed by the side effects of drugs at least - it is the diagnosed children that are the healthy ones, free of stress addiction and its cognition and behaviour warping effects, best able to work on intellectually challenging tasks.

Classical Studies.

If this culture is maintaining sufficient background psychosocial stress to impare cognitive flexibility, cultures in previous eras might have been cognitively fitter. If everyone experienced a superset of our normal, focussed attention, they might be expected to know more about the juxtapositional parts of cognition that we neither study nor teach. So in this area, the usual objections to the possibility of “lost ancient knowledge” do not apply. One myth from deepest antiquity concerns Pleroma (Everything), which emanates (projects) Sophia (Wisdom). Sophia then has a go at emanating, and produces the Demiurge (Worker). Sophia is embarrassed by the Demurge’s failings, and hides in a cloud. The Demiurge thinks it has created everything, but in fact everything it sees has been given to it. The Demiurge then creates an illusory world to ensnare humanity, and Pleroma sends food parcels to help them escape. The recently contraversial His Dark Materials Trilogy isn’t actually atheist at all - it’s a retelling of the same ancient story. This can easily be taken not as a myth of the creation of our external reality but of our internal perception of it. The external reality projects entities onto our juxtapositional awareness, where they appear spontaneously. With juxtapositional awareness suppressed, the worker of focussed attention can only operate on its givens but confuses the map with the territory, creating illusion. Juxtapositional awareness isn’t so hard to regain once we know the trick of it.

Here’s the mystic George Gurdjieff summarizing ideas found in several traditions, quoted by P. D. Ouspensky in In Search of the Miraculous:

In all there are four states of consciousness possible for man… but ordinary man… lives in the two lowest states of consciousness only. The two higher states of consciousness are inaccessible to him, and although he may have flashes of these states, he is unable to understand them, and he judges them from the point of view of those states in which it is usual for him to be.

The two usual, that is, the lowest, states of consciousness are first, sleep, in other words a passive state in which man spends a third and very often a half of his life. And second, the state in which men spend the other part of their lives, in which they walk the streets, write books, talk on lofty subjects, take part in politics, kill one another, which they regard as active and call `clear consciousness’ or `the waking state of consciousness’. The term clear consciousness’ or `the waking state of consciousness’ seems to have been given in jest, especially when you realise what clear consciousness ought in reality to be and what the state in which man lives and acts really is.

The third state of consciousness is self-remembering or self-consciousness or consciousness of one’s being. It is usual to consider that we have this state of consciousness or that we can have it if we want it. Our science and philosophy have overlooked the fact that we do not possess this state of consciousness and that we cannot create it in ourselves by desire or decision alone.

The fourth state of consciousness is called the objective state of consciousness. In this state a man can see things as they are. Flashes of this state of consciousness also occur in man. In the religions of all nations there are indications of the possibility of a state of consciousness of this kind which is called `enlightenment’ and various other names but which cannot be described in words. But the only right way to objective consciousness is through the development of self-consciousness. If an ordinary man is artificially brought into a state of objective consciousness and afterwards brought back to his usual state he will remember nothing and he will think that for a time he had lost consciousness. But in the state of self-consciousness a man can have flashes of objective consciousness and remember them.

The fourth state of consciousness in man means an altogether different state of being; it is the result of long and difficult work on oneself.

But the third state of consciousness constitutes the natural right of man as he is, and if man does not possess it, it is only because of the wrong conditions of his life. It can be said without any exaggeration that at the present time the third state of consciousness occurs in man only in the form of very rare flashes and that it can be made more or less permanent in him only by means of special training.

Ouch! Is he talking about why programming is hard?

Next: Conclusion