Low Level Stress Matters

In this posting I shall expand on the amount of stress which is needed to stop people programming, how it differs from the usual understanding of workplace stress, and how giving people good reason to be self-confident can control it.

The kind of stress that people usually talk about in workplace settings might be called extreme stress. For example, the UK Health and Safety Executive offers these bullet points on their page, Why tackle work-related stress?:

  • Work-related stress accounts for over a third of all new incidences of ill health.
  • Each case of work-related stress, depression or anxiety related ill health leads to an average of 30.2 working days lost.
  • A total of 13.8 million working days were lost to work-related stress, depression and anxiety in 2006/07.

That’s serious! Clinical depression and anxiety related ill health are certainly not trivial. What we can take from this is an indication of how much stress is actually running around some sites, but it’s a far higher level than I argue is needed to stop people being able to program. Because most people maintain enough background stress to stop them programming most of the time, we would normally think of a worker who is in fact too stressed to program as “unstressed”. I’ve found almost nothing on the websites of firms who do stress management training (and there are lots of them) about the vast untapped resource of intelligence which is concealed by background stress. A notable exception is one David Lee, who talks about this on his page Employee Stress and Performance:

One obvious implication of this research is that employee intellectual functioning can be very powerfully influenced by their environment. In workplaces where employees feel helpless and disempowered, they are less likely to think in intelligent, creative ways. Another important implication, and this is born out by other research, is that perceived control plays a major role in whether a person is affected by a potentially stressful workplace. Workers in jobs with similar demands, but different levels of control, exhibit very different psychological and physiological responses. With the same demand level, workers in low control workplaces are significantly more affected by their work.

This does not mean that we are doomed before we start. It is true that we can’t build gelled teams where the members are suffering the kind of stress that the Health and Safety Executive worries about, but it is possible to arrange the conditions of an individual team to reduce such stress, even if the rest of the organization continues to pass it around wretchedly.

The Dreaded Jungian Backlash can then be expected, but senior managers can defuse that by simply telling the people who are getting snotty not to worry about it, and just get on with doing their stuff. As soon as they are confident that they are not to blame, they won’t feel the need to translate the resentment they feel because of stress mismatch into microsabotage. They will no longer feel a need to “teach lessons” in case, by omitting to exercise stress-addicted sanctions, they might become “non-compliant” themselves. A few moments of strong leadership can blow this stuff away, but it’s amazing how many line managers are unable to do this because they are themselves trapped in the stress addicted organization’s climate of fear and unmentionables, and react to mounting resentment in a way which endorses and encourages it.

So just as the Health and Safety Executive say, we can back off from chronic, health destroying stress by identifying and removing stressors, and helping people organize their lives in a less stressful way. We also have to manage the Dreaded Jungian Backlash, which (as far as I know) is a novel part of this analysis.

Unfortunately we’ve still not done once we’ve got our teams sitting calmly and not having heart attacks. Even if they were the most unstressed people on their commuter train, they’d still be too stressed to be able to program (unless they happen to be a member of the lucky minority). We have to reduce their stress levels below ambient, and we have to do this without packing them off to a meditation centre in the mountains. It isn’t practical, and they’d probably object. We can’t get any further by removing stressors. Fortunately we can cut over to another trick - displacement.

By carefully working through everything a team member will need to call on, making sure they understand their job, and how it fits together with everyone else’s, and getting them to demonstrate their control to themselves, we can create the perception of control that Lee talks about. As all the self-improvement traditions say, good thoughts drive out bad ones. The worker might have a very stressful life outside, but at work they know where they are, their tools work as advertised, they know the tricks to make their libraries work. So they know they can load up a problem and get on with productive stuff, and as soon as they do that, they’re in flow. (At first, you will have to stimulate juxtapositional thinking. Use The Original Talks as a starting point - the chapters are available through the links at top right of the starting page.)

There’s another interesting point on Lee’s page that’s particularly relevant to software engineers working in open plan. He says:

One group was subjected to a loud noise in the middle of the exercise and told there was nothing they could do about it; they had to “grin and bear it.” The other group was subjected to the same loud noise in the middle of the exercise, but they were told they could have the noise stopped if they chose. The results were both fascinating and disturbing in their implications for organizational performance.

The group that had no control demonstrated a significant deterioration in their thought process during and after the noise. Their thinking became unemotional, unimaginative, and dull. It was as if they became temporarily dumb in order to endure the stressful situation. Even more interesting was the other group’s response. Although they were told they could stop the noise if they needed to, not one person chose to do so. Therefore, they experienced the same amount of unpleasant noise as the group which wasn’t given that option.

An engineer listening to CDs using earphones controls the tune and the volume. A naked engineer is exposed to the torture of waiting for the next phone to ring or conversation to start, and can’t stop them when they do. Earphones are obviously very valuable in open plan, and should never be banned. Going further, a lot of people don’t like the tiny phones which fit into the ear because they chaff, leading to the popularity of light headphones which sit on the ear. The problem with these is that they leak more sound, and this can be annoying to people who are not listening to music. Given the evidence for the debilitating effects of uncontrollable noise generated stress in open plan, I think it would make more sense to allow leaky headphones and suggest that everyone uses them.

Neuroscience, All Postings, Stress Addiction

Some Challenging Animal Models

There are some animal models which are interesting, but I left them out of the static Introduction pages. I’m sure you’ll see why. This is just between us humans OK? Don’t let the monkeys see it, and certainly not the cats.

The paper The development and significance of abnormal stereotyped behaviours in tethered sows by G. M. Cronin is a massively cited classic that opened up lots of new research. Cronin describes how sows tethered in battery farming units start to perform abnormal, repetitive pacing and twitching behaviours.

It’s the stress. By performing these behaviours over and over again the sows raise a stress response - their endorphins in this case. The self-generated drug numbs them to the misery of their welfare status. I leave you to make your own comparisons with the whole social stereotypies, background stress, addiction, cognitive distortion thing.

The second animal model is a bit of a sanity check. Focussed attention is the common denominator in this culture, in language and custom. Strictly in its own terms, it’s hard to argue against it. Here’s Dr. Russell Barkley, an ADHD expert and a big fan of focussed attention, taken from his Fact Sheet:

Poor sustained attention or persistence of effort to tasks. This problem often arises when the individual is assigned boring, tedious, protracted, or repetitive activities that lack intrinsic appeal to the person. They often fail to show the same level of persistence, “stick-to-it-tiveness,” motivation, and will-power of others their age when uninteresting yet important tasks must be performed. They often report becoming easily bored with such tasks and consequently shift from one uncompleted activity to another without completing these activities. Loss of concentration during tedious, boring, or protracted tasks is commonplace, as is an inability to return to their task on which they were working should they be unexpectedly interrupted. Thus, they are easily distracted during periods when concentration is important to the task at hand. They may also have problems with completing routine assignments without direct supervision, being unable to stay on task during independent work.

This sounds kind of reasonable, especially if you’re only talking about the kind of Cog. Psych. tests that look at focussed attention, but what’s missing here? For a sanity check, there was a behavioural psychologist called Verhave, who trained pidgeons to do quality control work in a pharmacuticals factory. Pills can adopt many positions and orientations on a conveyor belt, so automating the detection of imperfect ones would be tricky today and certainly wasn’t possible in the 1960s. Humans are up to the job cognitively, but it’s so utterly boring their performance drops off pretty soon.

Pidgeons have no such impairment of their faculty of focussed attention, and can outperform a human any time on the single dimension of performance used by Dr. Barkley. The astonishing details of Verhave’s work are contained in Behavior Analysis and Learning by W. David Pierce and Carl D. Cheney. It’s a Google book so you can just click the link. There’s a drawing of the apparatus and everything. The humans only kept their jobs because the pidgeons’ droppings were a bit of a problem in a pill factory. It cannot be an advance to optimize ourselves such that it’s our toilet training that gives us the edge over the birds. We can do space stations.

The third animal model is the famous chimps beating the university students at spotting numbers:



This strikes me as very similar to the Embedded Figures Test, a kind of low level probe of highly parallelized operation, allowing the chimp to do it in one go, without sequentially searching for each form in sequence. (I’m hoping the chimps are just looking for forms they’ve been trained are sequential. Don’t tell me they can really count too?)

Also notice the way the chimp is moving - much more slowly and deliberately than the stabby movements of the human. This fits with the idea that the unstressed chimp has enough working memory to see the kata while the human must operate sequentially and then tries to work quickly.

It would be interesting to see if people who profess volitional control of their cognitive states can do any better than the chimp. Perhaps I should write an applet that uses a mouse. We can calibrate on university students (who are known to be rubbish at this) and then see if various subjects can do better or worse.

A tenner on His Holiness! H. Sapiens Represent!

Neuroscience, All Postings, ADHD, Stress Addiction

Early EFT Results

Over 100 people have now entered an EFT results form with at least the “Before” value filled in. The raw data, just as I pulled it from the MySql table that cforms II made, is eft11dec2007.txt. Looking at the occupations, this is an entirely geek sample. The breakdown of scores is:


0000 - 0999 ... 0
1000 - 1999 ... 10
2000 - 2999 ... 48
3000 - 3999 ... 47
4000 - 4999 ... 8
5000 - 5999 ... 13
6000 - 6999 ... 4
7000 - 7999 ... 0
8000 - 8999 ... 1

From occasional trials on various people, there’s a big pool of people 5000+ missing from the geeky sample. What’s interesting is the low number of people 4000 - 4999. I’ve seen that gap in occasional trials, making me hope it would stay there with bigger numbers of samples.

Juxtapositional thinking seems to appear and disappear digitally, but the sudden, non-linear appearance could come from the repeated use of faculty that was improving linearly. If a problem required two jumps to solve, the chance of getting it might be the linear improvement squared. So the non-appearance of a performance gap wouldn’t mean much, but if a performance gap appeared, it would encouarge my hope that EFTs can be used to determine if someone can use juxtapositional thinking at the time they do the test.

Neuroscience, All Postings, Stress Addiction

Some Useful Techniques

Here are a couple of articles which describe ways to improve awareness. It’s all good for destressing, which according to social stress addiction is necessary to reduce dopamine and norepinephrine and allow cognitive flexibility to return.

I would make one qualification. There are a couple of suggestions involving thinking in pictures and making diagrams. Practical experience working with software engineers suggests this is a good idea for males, but less so for females. Females seem to prefer one dimensional representations packed with richness - words. Lots of punctuation and qualifications in the words doesn’t confuse them. Males seem to prefer two dimensional representations with much less richness - pictures. The information content is the same, but the representation is different.

This matches findings that suggest males tend to be better at spacial perception, females at language. I’ve even advised teams that where a male is explaining something to a female he should sit on his hands and make himself talk. A female explaining to a male should try to draw a picture first, then explain it. This loads the harder task onto the person who already knows what the idea is.

So if you are female, try replacing the stuff about diagrams, with explaining everything to an imaginary student. (This point was first brought home to me 20 years ago, after I’d spent about half an hour explaining an idea to a German woman who remains the best business analyst I’ve ever met. After much hand-waving and whiteboarding on my part, she said, “Zis is all very nice. But vy not just tell ze computer vot to do?” She has an ability to map from requirement directly to code, in a way that I just can’t do it.)

Get Smart: How to Boost your IQ by 10 points.

7 Little Known Ways To Drastically Improve Your Learning

10 Amazingly Simple Tricks To Turn Your Brain Into A Powerful Thinking Machine.

This article is very good on stress, but bear in mind that what it says about dopamine is the current conventional understanding of the function of high dopamine. This is really the core issue that this blog is all about. I reckon that while high dopamine is a “feel good” chemical, it is no more healthy to have it elevated for long periods as a response to stress, than it is as a response to snorting cocaine. It makes us feel good, but it is addictive, and it shuts down some of our cognition. It is nature’s tranquilizer, and like all tranquilizers it should be used sparingly, and only at times of crisis. We should not structure our lives in a stressful way in order to stimulate addictive dopamine hits:

The Guide to Stress Part I: Chemicals of Stress and Their Effects

Another good article on stress:

Stress: It’s Worse Than You Think

Neuroscience, All Postings, Stress Addiction

Noise In Open Plan Offices

Way back in Peopleware, DeMarco and Lister were very critical of open plan offices, particularly the incessant noise of ringing telephones and other people’s conversations.

More recently at Joel on Software, Joel Spolsky has been saying the same thing over and over. So interesting to notice an abstract, Creativity and Breadth of Attention, which concludes that:

(a) trait breadth of attention was correlated modestly and positively (r =. 20) with creative performance; (b) creative performance was impaired by exposure to noise, especially noise that was unpredictable or intelligible; and (c) noise impaired creative performance more in participants whose trait breadth of attention was wide than in those whose trait breadth of attention was narrow.

So people with greater environmental sensitivity are more creative (here determined by writing poems, an acceptable alternative to writing Java), unpredictable phones and intelligible conversations are most impairing, and they impair the best people the most.

So open plan offices are shown to impair the performance of the highly priced workers put in them. This is bad accounting. Perhaps the motive for this bad accounting is an unconscious desire on the part of accountants to creative stressful, dopamine raising environments.

Neuroscience, All Postings, Stress Addiction, Programming

Mobile Phones Slow Brain Activity

Hmm. The article Study: frequent cell phone use slows brain activity is at least suggestive. In American Mania, Whybrow emphasises mobile phone use in the people he calls manic, and I share his interest in this phenomenon. There are plenty of compulsive mobile phoners around - what can they be talking about? The amount of novel information per call must be very low. The calls are highly compressible. So compulsive mobile phoning is a very good candidate for a way of fixing rituals, and chronic fixers can be expected to be mentally sluggish. The “less open minded” bit fits rather well too. The improved “focus” is possibly more to do with the reduced sensitivity associated with stress, rather than a learning effect.

If so, it’s the stressfulness of the use cases rather than the broadcast radiation that is responsible for the effect.

Neuroscience, All Postings, Stress Addiction

Broken DRD4 Protects Coincidence Detection!

It turns out there’s a direct link in the literature whereby dopamine turns off some coincidence detection functionality via DRD4.

A database at Stamford says,

this is one of the five types (d1 to d5) of receptors for dopamine. the activity of this receptor is mediated by g proteins which inhibit adenylyl cyclase.

Wikipedia says:

In neurons, adenylate cyclases are located next to calcium ion channels for faster reaction to Ca2+ influx; they are suspected of playing an important role in learning processes. This is supported by the fact that adenylate cyclases are coincidence detectors, meaning that they are only activated by several different signals occurring together.

A cartoon of adenylate cyclase, linked from a page at Davidson College, mainly because I love the rasmol colours :-)



It isn’t high level processing though - DRD1 and DRD5 stimulate adenylate cyclase. More like an AND gate - a basic component that can be used in many ways. Even so, social ritual addiction values coincidence detection for itself, rather than as something possibly related to learning.

Neuroscience, All Postings