DeMarco Sees Addiction

The picture I present on this blog has most people involved in maintaining a “stress economy”, where they wind stress up amongst themselves to fulfill a baseline addictive need. The baseline’s cognitive effects are too high to permit those involved to think effectively about programming, so we have to give people good reason to be self-confident in order to reduce their stress, and so enable them to do good work.

As soon as a team destresses with respect to others in their organization, their abandoning the stress economy will cause resentment which must be managed. Otherwise it can grow to the level of industrial sabotage, preventing the team from working where it does not create physical hazards.

This is not your normal description of what drives behaviour in an office, so I was recently delighted to see some lecture slides from Peopleware author Tom DeMarco, called Quick or Dead, where he notes how much developer time is now spent in unproductive meetings, and explicitly proposes that there is an addictive cycle at work.

I don’t know if he means us to take him literally, but DeMarco’s intuition here is exactly right, and I’m arguing that we should recognize an addictive cycle in which the wretched meetings (which often follow the same script week in and week out) produce stress, and give the attendees a hit of stress chemistry. They are literally, physiologically, addictive.

For a long time until I found the stress connection, I was convinced that social stereotypies (like having the same meeting) somehow raised dopamine, which was addictive and cognition impairing. I couldn’t find a way to get from stereotypies to changes in brain chemistry though, because I had no idea why stereotypies effected brain chemistry. I didn’t even know if it was the stereotypical behaviours themselves that did the trick, or if they worked by driving out other, novel stimulii that were essential for us to stay healthy. Recognizing that the wretched meetings work by being stressful, and stress does the rest, was the final bit of the puzzle. So it’s interesting to see someone with lots of experience of group dynamics also warning of addictive dangers in social stereotypies.

He’s right about it getting much worse too, because the background stress level is getting worse. Left to themselves, addictive loops only ever grow worse.

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

More Elaytya

The discussion of the Finnish word “elaytya” is taking a curious turn. Jaana Wessman writes:

Hello,

I am just reading your intro to the Programmer’s stone (which Sampo Smolander pointed out to me and which I find highly interesting and intuitively appealing). Like him, I am a native speaker of Finnish and I do not recognize the meaning “excellence-forming” for “eläytyminen” - I have never heard anyone use it that way, and if someone had I would not have understood it the way they meant.

Eläytyä (from which that is the corresponding noun) to me means to empathize with someone, to imagine what it would feel like to be someone or something in a particular situation, or to gain insight by such an activity. It is sometimes also used as translation for “immersion” in the sense of total immersion to a particular subject (or character in roleplaying games or method acting), which is related but not the same. It does not however have any connotation whatsoever to excellence to me.

Most importantly, the Finnish word eläytyminen to me implies a conscious (emotional, not intellectual, but still conscious) effort to imagine a particular situation, even when it is done to gain possibly new insight to a particular situation — not the kind of sub- or semiconscious thinking that happens before a lightbulb goes on in your head. I do not think there is a Finnish word for that; if there is I am not aware of what it is. In any case, if a word exists it likely does so in some academic circle, not used in every-day speech, and as such it is unlikely to explain any possible excellence of the performance of children. (The measuring of which is another topic I could rant about… but maybe another time.)

Google, on the other hand, implies that Mr Mik Seljamaa is Estonian, not Finnish. While related, the two languages are quite different — maybe there is a word in Estonian?

Again, thank you for the text, excellent reading, and seems to fit not only programming but also making science.

Jaana Wessman

That’s interesting. Two people have now proposed an alternative definition of “elaytya” which does not seem to fit Mik’s “excellence-forming”. Mik had proposed the word as a candidate for “setting out to find an insight”, and he thought “excellence-forming” fitted the bill.

These other definitions seem to be closer to another word which did not exist in English, until Robert Heinlein invented “grok“. Hmm… Might we say that grokking is the passive, observational part of setting out to find an insight?

Jouni K. Seppänen then did some digging into recent history, and came up with something fascinating:

Hello from another Finn (and hi Sampo!),

My instinct is to agree with Sampo Smolander that “eläytyä” mostly means trying to identify with another person’s feelings. However, I checked a dictionary of “modern” Finnish and was surprised. The dictionary is Nykysuomen sanakirja, finished in 1965 after almost 40 years of work, so it reflects the Finnish of that period (but probably remains the best general-purpose dictionary of Finnish).

The first meaning given (implying that it is the most usual) is “sisäisesti mukautua, sopeutua, totuttautua”, which I would translate as “internally conform, adapt, get used to something”. As a special case of this the dictionary mentions “to become immersed in something with all one’s soul, forgetting oneself, especially in creating or performing a piece of art”. I sort of vaguely recognize the general meaning, though it sounds somewhat antiquated, but this special case is new to me, except for performing a piece of art, but in that case I thought it just means identifying with the feelings of a character in a play.

The second gloss is what I (and Sampo) recognize: to identify with others’ feelings or with a character in a play. There is also a third meaning, “to be refreshed, rejuvenated”, but it is marked rare even in this dictionary.

So, apparently in 1965 the word had the meaning mentioned by your correspondent, but at least two Finns in their thirties did not know about it.


Jouni K. Seppänen
http://www.iki.fi/jks

So it would seem that “eläytyä” has weakened within my lifetime, never mind living memory! Here’s a wild conjecture, bizarre in that it is explicitly based on a claim of ignorance :-) :

When I was a kid in Britain in the 1960s, the only thing I knew about Finland was that the Moomin trolls lived there. Later my knowledge expanded greatly, when I learned that Sibelius was Finnish, and he did the music for The Sky at Night. Finnish culture was not closely coupled to British culture. If Finns were, through historical and geographical accident maintaining a pre-Industrial level of background social stress, the cultural interaction to shift norms and make life more stressful wasn’t there to raise it.

Today, Nokia and Torvalds to name but two are making respectable bids for Total World Domination in their respective fields, and Finnish culture is much more closely coupled to everyone else. Might a consequence of this be increased background stress, leading to a reduction in effective PFC use and a withering of the word used to describe it - before our very eyes?

Perhaps the Minister of Culture should be granted Emergency Powers!

Finnish Word "Elaytya", Language, All Postings, Stress Addiction

Response to a Reddit Comment

A link to this blog appeared on Reddit, and a reader posted a critical comment which it’s worth addressing in detail. The big picture I’m describing is not one that readers will have seen before, and that’s a situation where it’s often necessary to allow misunderstandings to provide the structure for clarification. Please be warned that the comment contains language which is common in Reddit flames, although I would not use it normally on this blog. If vulgarity distresses you, please skip this post!

Insofar as he says everyone can program, he is a complete fucking moron. It is blatantly impossible.

I wouldn’t go so far as saying that everyone can program. There are some people who just can’t get their heads around formal syntax - they can’t get the semi-colons and other little things right, because they aren’t at all familiar with that kind of precision. Others don’t like working with keyboards and screens, and in the current generation of technology that’s a big problem. Maybe one day we’ll have some kind of gesture based immersive Squeak environment with voice recognition and inference, but for now the little things can still be a problem. When it comes down to it there are even some people who can’t cope with being indoors, and rainwater plays havoc with most current hardware!

What I do claim is that (almost) everyone who is currently working as a programmer can become one of the currently rare super programmers who deliver super productivity. They were born with the necessary faculties but background social stress, which is addictive for most people, takes those faculties offline. To become a super programmer they need support to reduce their level of stress, bring the missing faculties online, and become aware of them. Furthermore, in people who do not wish to be programmers the same faculties are important for doing other things, which I suspect include things like being able to correctly evaluate some kinds of biopsies using a microscope, and all kinds of creative arts.

In the twenty years I’ve been exploring this, I’ve met two people who I couldn’t get anywhere with even though all the conditions were right. One was a male who was unable to give up a very aggressive approach which had served him well in the usual snake pit of bombast and blame avoidance. The rest of his team were able to build authentic self-confidence and quickly got better at seeing what each other were on about. This led to a deepening and enrichment of everyone’s understanding of the technical problems they had to solve, and their project quickly transformed from the site’s greatest embarrassment to the only one that produced clean results in every one of the customer’s acceptance tests. He was trapped in a zero sum game, and every success made his nightmare worse. Everyone on a stressed-out team is something of a nutter, but this guy’s problems went way deeper. My guess was that he’d probably been like that since he was a toddler. Eventually he transferred to a sales support engineer’s job, where he did very well. He knew where he was in a stressed-out and basically distrustful context where his aggression enabled him to break deadlocks. There are some situations where the military idea that a quick decision is better than a correct one applies, and there he was happy.

The other was a female who was similarly trapped in a simple strategy that she’d obviously learned as a small child. I don’t know what became of her because I didn’t spend as long with that team, but I will say this - little girls go kind of weird when they reach 50 and it doesn’t work at all any more. What she was doing working in a local government IT department I do not know.

I’ve described these two cases because they make an important point. I am not a psychotherapist, and I’ve never made any attempt to pretend to be one. I’ve only ever been able to destress teams by giving them good reason to be self-confident in technical areas. In almost every case that’s been enough. You do not have to be a “people person” to use this approach, there is nothing “fuzzy” about it. If workers need professional help that’s their private business and not yours, but sometimes you can support them if they want to do something more suited to them as they are.

Look, I have known people who write P and not P in consecutive paragraphs. They don’t just believe in contradictory ideas, they believe in two exact negations separated by maybe 5 seconds in time. And it’s not an “error” since even after it’s pointed out to them, they don’t see the fucking problem!

I absolutely agree. It’s astonishing but it’s true. The approach I describe in this blog is no trivial thing. It includes a radical reconsideration of just how peculiar the state we usually call “normality” really is. We didn’t evolve to be stressed out all the time, and now that as a culture we’re addicted to a background level of social stress it has profound effects on our cognition. I describe this phenomenon of believing contradictory statements, even when the contradiction is pointed out, in the section Expecting Self-Consistency. When stress reduces a person’s ability to juxtapose, they stop being aware of self-consistency (or the lack of it) in any collection of statements. Tell them two contradictory things and the alarm bells of contradiction don’t ring.

How does a person know what’s what if at the time, they cannot detect contradiction? Instead of using their own good senses they rely on compliance. If someone else tells them X and Y, they will accept X and Y as true, and will not worry that X contradicts Y. They haven’t been told about that, so they don’t worry about it. So long as they have complied with what they have been told, nothing else matters. Just as self-confidence is a self-sustaining spiral of improvement, so the lack of trust in our own good senses is a self-sustaining spiral of decline.

It’s also an empirical fact that most people cannot handle logical syllogisms. They can’t comprehend that “if A then B, and A, then B”. And this isn’t due to lack of education because we’re talking about college students here. Hell, I have known professors teaching symbolic logic who don’t comprehend logical syllogisms. Try to wrap your head around that one.

But it might not be. How can we tell? This is the origin of long-term stressed out people’s attitude to “mere facts”. We must not be to blame, so unless someone has told us B, we should not accept it. This is why, in stressed out schools with stressed out teachers “socializing” children by addicting them to stress, children will get detentions for contradicting clearly incorrect statements made by teachers. Only compliance can save us from the unknowable chaos that surrounds us.

As to professors, likely more of them are in the grip of social stress addiction than programmers are. They stand up and go “Blah blah blah”, the students write down every blah, but the content often isn’t significant at all. I once saw a remarkable demonstration of this by a gifted Economics lecturer. Part way through a talk on classical elasticity of demand he started to talk utter nonsense. He didn’t give any “Laugh now” cues with his tone of voice or cadence, he just said that demand for products usually purchased by women did not exhibit significant price elasticity because research has shown that women’s brains are smaller than mens, and on like that. Most of the students just kept scribbling, scribbling, scribbling. The minority of students who were lucky enough to keep their wits about them in conditions of addictive social stress did notice, but it took a few minutes before their rising disquiet cued the majority that something was going on, and then they started performing the political protest procedures that they had been habituated to - also by rote.

In the modern school systems of America and the UK, the scribbling students would be called “alert” and “able to focus”, while the really alert ones would be called “unable to resist distraction”, which is often “co-morbid with oppositional syndrome”. The introspective, stress addicted worm swallows its own tail, endorses its own errors.

And to beat them all, I have known people who can’t comprehend structural identity, even after an hour trying to explain it to them. They can’t comprehend, and will not accept, that two molecules of CO2 are absolutely identical and that swapping their positions swaps their identities.

You see, they can’t comprehend the abstract concept of an abstract concept because they don’t believe in the existence of abstract concepts. Because abstract concepts don’t exist in their brains.

I think that second sentence was intended to read, “… swapping their positions doesn’t swap their identities.” After all, that’s what equivalence means. I describe this on the Logical Effects page. It’s the same as the Monty Hall problem.

A person familiar with juxtapositional awareness will be able to spontaneously notice things, in an “all-or-nothing insight” way. Therefore when they do the famous symbol based thinking, they are able to bear in mind that the symbols are a (partial) representation of an external reality. Without this experience, the symbols and the reality are confused. The map becomes the territory. So in the Monty Hall problem, the internal symbols of the initial statement of the problem don’t change when the host supplies additional information, so people can’t believe that their choice might now be improved by changing. The same thing prevents people from getting their heads round Bayesian statistics.

So they can do symbols, but what they can’t do is the reality that the symbols represent. Anything involving imperfect knowledge or external identity becomes very confusing. This returns to Dijkstra’s observation that in mathematical proofs, “The underexploitation of the equivalence, i.e. the failure to exploit inherent symmetries, often lengthens an argument by a factor of 2, 4 or more.”

Consider: Prohibition creates the market for gangsters to make huge profits. Anyone who wishes to take drugs this weekend will be able to acquire them. Therefore, clearly, the solution to the gangster problem is… more Prohibition!

It is a sorry state.

Now you tell me, how the hell is it ever possible for such people to learn to program in any environment? How is it even conceivable? You would have to be some kind of fucked up retard to deny the overwhelming empirical evidence. Evidence which is literally all around you if you will just open your eyes to it.

People in the stressed state can’t program. Period. We have a software industry which is like a black comedy, with projects going over budget by orders of magnitude and many other problems, because the ability of some people to program most of the time, and most programmers to program on rare occasions, has led us to believe that all programmers can program all the time.

Try the experiment of going round your colleagues, inviting them to write a simple program to say, read in a string, reverse it and output it. It is shocking to discover how few of your colleagues will be able to swing round, open a file and type in such a program.

However, as I have explained in great detail, these problems come from social background stress preventing the prefrontal cortex from functioning in a way which permits programming. If we give people good reason to be self-confident we can reduce background stress and they turn on like lightbulbs.

It seems to me that the poster of this comment has become so distressed by the stress-induced stupidity all round him, that he has not bothered to follow the directions on the page What To Do Per Individual before making the empirical observations. It’s strange that after I’ve described much deeper problems than the poster has, the poster believes that I’m unaware of problems.

Many people who are immune to social stress addiction because of a broken DRD4 dopamine receptor, or an very active DAT allele, have been driven to a state of demented despair by the seemingly cynical, dishonest, arrogant, slothful, conspiratorial, delusional and evasive behaviour of those around them, which is just like the behaviour of those who induce a delusional state by raising their dopamine levels by taking cocaine.

If you program then know this: most people do not think like you, most people CANNOT think like you, most people can never comprehend you. But you can understand them if you just learn the basic concepts that underpin their minds. Of course, if you do this, you will become elitist.

If I did not know from personal experience that it’s a matter of health, and most people have all the truly normal faculties but in a dormant state, then I would be an extreme elitist. Try the following idea, which is something which might produce feelings of either satisfaction or compassion, depending on the depth of your rage: There’s a phenomenon called the “second childhood”. In this, elderly people develop unpredictable and exploratory behaviours like dragging abandoned shopping carts out of rivers. We know that advancing age reduces the neurochemical response to stress, and retirement significantly reduces a person’s participation in the social stress economy, so they wake up and really do become more like kids, before stress addiction sets in. This exploratory behaviour is annoying to their middle-aged, stress-addicted offspring, who start describing them as mentally handicapped - as they do their non-stress addicted children.

Now there’s another strange effect associated with the “second childhood”. The elderly person find that their memories of childhood are sharp, but their memories of most of their life are poor and indistinct. This is usually described as a bizarre failure mode of the elderly people’s advancing senility, but in the stress addiction model there’s a more chilling interpretation. As children they experienced their lives fully, and they remembered their experiences in the way that human memory should work. Then, at around age 6 they went to sleep. They stayed asleep until 65, when they woke up again, old and near the end of their lives. Those shoddy memories were all they had of most of their existence.

I have concluded that social stress addiction, as exposed by studying the mysterious subject of the practical industrial psychology of computer programming and then identifiable all over the place, is the greatest curse the human race has ever suffered.

All Postings, Logical Effects, Stress Addiction, Programming

Life on Mars

Life on Mars is a BBC TV series about a detective who gets banged on the head and wakes up in 1973. It’s great drama, but what really makes it special is the accuracy with which the production team has recreated the North of England in 1973. It is spot on, and I know this is true because I was there. It’s so different to now that just like the Bowie song from the time, the detective might be on a different planet. Here’s an interesting ten minute clip I found on YouTube:



(Yes, my geeky friend, that is the Fifth Master playing Sam Tyler. Don’t start an argument about the integer - Whovian canonicity is a black hole, and since the Time War the Doctor’s deliberately as paradox entwined as Morgaine.)

Sexism. The Female Eunuch was only 3 years old, so forget the post-feminist criticism - it’s “a bit previous”, as we used to say in that time and place. Women were routinely insulted and subject to invasions of their personal space that would be thought of as sexual assault today. The very term “personal space” was unheard of. Smoking. Everyone smoked at work, all the time. Everything - walls, furniture, clothes, skin, windows, light fittings were all covered with thick yellow tar, making everything dirty, smelly and dark. Drinking. People would commonly get so drunk at lunchtime that they couldn’t walk straight, then they’d drive back to their pathetic attempts at work.

These things were seen as normal, even genetically mandated laws of nature. Anyone who suggested improving this kind of behaviour would be characterized as a possibly insane, sexually confused Trotskyite.

Things are much better today, I can tell you. Yes, there are still glass ceiling problems, but as I write the bookies’ favourite to win the U. S. Presidential election is a woman, and no-one would dare oppose her on grounds of gender. Apart from anything else, Maggie Thatcher (elected 1979) would rise up and swallow them whole!



In the first six months since Scotland banned smoking in all public venues, heart attacks dropped by 17%, and we can even see what the monitors at work are displaying. We just don’t see people staggering at work any more. In most business sectors drunkenness at work is just not acceptable, even where the insurance company might tolerate it.

The point of all this is that the last 34 years have brought immense improvements in these aspects of our lives, solving problems that once weren’t even recognized as such. Two of the problems I’ve mentioned involved perhaps the most perniciously addictive and damaging drugs known to history. Alcohol and tobacco still cause more problems than crack cocaine - we just tolerate those problems more because we’re used to them.

During the agrarian and crude, unautomated mass production industrial eras, the cognition impairing effects of social stress addiction might even have brought some benefits. Frederick Taylor, the father of “scientific management” told workers to “Leave your brain outside and bring your body indoors.” He didn’t really mean that of course. He only wanted the workers to leave the good bits of their brains outside. Unquestioning, reactive, rote focussed attention was what he wanted. We now know that management by maintaining anxiety in the workers - “putting pressure” on people - achieves exactly that state, at a neurochemical level. It does exactly what cocaine does to brain chemistry, and just like with cocaine, a worker hooked on stress will work in a focussed way unaware of peripheral issues, will require constant supervision because quality slips so badly, and becomes complacent and delusionally self-satisfied.

People came to see that way of working - and that way of managing - as normal. As normal as the nasty stinging blows any woman could expect to suffer at work, or the Sales Manager slumped unconscious in the planning room every afternoon.

The cognition distorting social stress addiction that I have described as making effective software engineering so difficult is a big problem. It will not be sorted out in one year, probably not in thirty. But with so many victories to our credit, it is quite sensible to assume that we will be able to beat this one too. Smart organizations can begin immediately, and as I have described on this blog, it’s easy to set up local zones of grounded self-confidence that make the workers smarter in a way the 21st century needs, but the 19th century didn’t.

It will be very helpful to address the Neuroscience Questions. I am personally confident that cognitive flexibility in poorly performing organizations will be found to be consistently worse than in leading ones, but this needs to be shown. Then it will be step by step until it seems like the species has gotten smarter.

The thing to remember is that we have an excellent track record in dealing with problems of this type. We have good reason to believe we can lick this one too.

All Postings, Stress Addiction

The Code and the Codebook



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!

All Postings, Logical Effects, 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

Can anyone remember what we do again?

Thanks to Colston Sanger for this one!

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

Signs Of The Times

The social stress addiction model says that whole societies can fall into a cognitively impaired, fearful state, addicted to stereotypies, xenophobic, unproductive and prone to lurch into totalitarianism. Ten years ago there were some trends to be seen, which became alarming when extrapolated according to this model. These days, the actualization of those dotted lines seems to be cropping up all over the place. Here’s a roundup of some recent stuff, which might help flesh out the reality of mass social stress addiction. It’s a complement to the big scale stuff I described in the recent post Totalitarianism. By doing this once, I hope to avoid having to do it again - dwelling on it is too depressing. I reckon we’ll make it through, and we’ll be the wiser for it. It’s just a question of how bad we’ll allow it to get.

The incident detailed in Angry cashier attacked deaf man, police say must have been utterly horrible for the fellow involved, but it’s so bizarre that I keep thinking of crass jokes. Dystopian Clerks - “Stress breeds intolerance. Intolerance breeds hatred. Bwaa! Turned to the Dark Side, Dante has.” Or maybe Monty Python - “No no Mungo! Never kill a customer!”

It’s insane - unless we assume the cashier has become so addicted to a high level of social stress that anything slightly unexpected triggers immense confusion and resentment - as described in post DDR Almost Caught On Camera!.

Meanwhile Hugs and High Fives Banned in School shows an introspective obsession with a subset of entities that are recognised in extreme symbol based thinking, and a disconnection from ground truth or how ridiculously unemployable the perpetrators must look to any sane town councillors.

Exhibit #1: Current Account Deficit shows a town with a businessperson, a few savers, lots of people making ends meet, a few maxed out on their credit cards, and a maniac on the end of a cocaine binge.

The Autumn of the Multitaskers describes the onset of something I’ve wondered about right from the off: might the final cap on social stress addiction be the physical collapse of the afflicted? That one has a nasty twist, which I tagged Meltdown Tuesday. The population of a large city uses Prozac and similar tricks to police itself within ever narrower bounds, way beyond the time they should have curled up and wept in the middle of the street. The whole thing becomes a supersaturated solution of anger. Then there’s a dispute over a parking space… Afterwards, the TV crews go in.

Southwest Airlines Apologizes to Woman Told to Cover Up, Announces ‘Skimpy’ Fare Sale, Second Flier’s Sexy Outfit Comes Under Fire and Southwest Airlines makes man change T-shirt all describe a spontaneous outbreak of prudery, reminiscent of the dreaded religious police of Saudia Arabia, amongst Southwest staff. The staff involved feel that they are enforcing a requirement that has been put upon them, but it isn’t their bosses doing it. So the Kafaesque climate of fear rises. Such a little thing, a tee-shirt.

Burning chilli sparks terror fear reminds us of “terror fear”. This is not terror, nor is it fear. Rather it is a stylised parody of fear, a compliance of fear. I suspect it functions as a dopamine raising stressor in part because it is so asinine. Whatever. If everyone in Soho is running round in panic, stereotypical parody or not, because someone is cooking chillis, and stress raises dopamine just like cocaine, it is only reasonable to assume their brain chemistry is out of whack.

Mom defends reaction to Iraqi passengers fairly simpers as the terror fear beat matches into Little house on the Prarie (you may need a brown paper bag of your own).

In Russia of course, they’re still struggling out of a black hole that lasted 70 years - Russian mayor bans excuse making. Hooray! A new awakening! May your grandchildren become citizens of the great Megionian civilization! (Think I’m joking, don’t you?)

Finally, I present poor Ellie Antoine. No-one, least of all Ellie herself, has any idea why she is compelled to behave as she does, despite the bizarre consequences reported in Judge Finds County Recorder in Contempt. Social stress addiction easily explains what has happened to Ellie.

It seems to me that social stress addiction is pretty good at explaining several worrying trends. Stress is even worse than described in article Stress: It’s Worse Than You Think. I hope I get enough Embedded Figures Test responses to show that stress reducing activities can change a test result known to be associated with “creativity”, and usually thought to be fixed for each person.

All Postings, Stress Addiction