How our Brain Works (and how to take advantage of it to become a better Developer)
Imagine that you are on a call with the client at the end of the day, they ask you if you can integrate a feature for the next week. Even knowing that you have a week full of tasks and activities, you tell them that it will be ready. On the way home you pass a fast food drive-through, even though you know you shouldn’t. Why is this happening? Why do we feel that we have no control about the decisions we make throughout the day? Why do we feel drained every day?
Precious Cognitive Resources
The human brain is a marvelous thing. Through the years it has evolved to be a complex organ that controls our thoughts, memory, emotions, motor skills, vision, breathing, temperature and every other process that regulates our body. Like any other machine, the human brain runs on fuel. This fuel are the precious cognitive resources.
Every cognitive process take up energy, the problem is we’ve only got one tank to fuel all of our activites. We’re fighting an uphill battle every day, both at home and at work. Willpower, focus, concentration, working on problem-solving are all using the same pool of cognitive resources. What’s worse is that it’s a extremely scare resource that is easily depleted. That’s why we often feel overwhelmed even when deciding what to watch on Netflix or what to order in at night, deciding from among hundred of options wastes resources and instead go into autopilot mode.
In today’s globalized society, the autopilot is becoming a bigger and bigger problem. By having more and more options available every day, the number of decisions we have to make increases. This depletes our number of cognitive resources, our brain needs to compensate and it “automates” some of our tasks during the day. When running on autopilot, we often make unhelpful choices so we feel trapped. I often start a new show on Netflix and binge it simply because of the auto-play feature, deciding to stop it takes more resources and to continue is simply easier. Social media is taking advantage of this phenomenon and incorporating some practices to keep us engaged, the infinite scrolls on apps like TikTok or Instagram is the reason we feel trapped and spend hours at times browsing though these apps.
How We Perceive Things?
Humans incorporate five major senses, each with multiple neural ways for distinguishing differences. We need to sense before we can perceive. Our brain can’t help but look for patterns and find structure in the information that is coming their way. Over the centuries the skill of pattern recognition has determined natural selection. Hunter skilled in recognizing tracks and the location of preys, gatherers recognizing poisonous plants from medicinal ones, these and more patterns offered better chances of survival. We humans are different from every other animal in that we desire to find structure in all of the things that we perceive. Our brain craves patterns is pivotal to how we make decisions
Emotions and their Impact on our Decisions
From a biological standpoint, fear is a very important emotion. It helps you respond to a threatening situation that could harm you, however fear can lead us to do things we know are wrong. We often behave irrational because we feel desperate, because we feel great fear. We might choose to drive in the highway instead of booking a flight because we’re afraid of heights, even though accident rates on highways are much higher. Fear can also prevent us from learning something new. We might be afraid of failing or just apearing as a mediocre developer. Emotions can determine how we behave and the things we are willing to interact with. That is why managing emotions is extremely important.
How to Take Advantage of It and Become a Better Developer
After learning some of the ways in which our brain works, we can hack it to make it work to our advantage.
Manage your Cognitive Resources.
Cognitive resources are very valuable items. Most of the time when working as a developer, we find ourselves learning new things at an almost impossible rate. On top of continuing to develop solutions for other projects. Resources tend to run out because we want to learn everything fully and in one sitting.
Use Mental Representations.
Mental representations are extremely important for learning quickly and effectively. The form of mental representations can vary from person to person, since a method can be effective for someone and not for another person, but they recreate experiences, make accurate predictions and condense information.
Mentorship and Apprentice.
Mentorship is another option to advance and learn in an accelerated way. By having a mentor you can learn directly from someone experienced. It could be said that something similar to transfer learning is carried out. The mentor will pass on everything that is considered of value and things without such importance will be left out. Find out if someone more experienced in your company or area is willing to be your mentor. You can also search online for a mentor.
Perceptual learning derives from how we perceive things and how our brain works to recognize patterns. To take advantage of the processes of our brain it is necessary to be exposed to high-quality and very high-quantity of examples to begin to form the connections. It takes approximately 200–300 examples to effectively form deep connections, normally in an academic environment such a university we are exposed to about 4 examples. There is a huge gap between these numbers. You can start to read code examples and documentation from open source projects to start forming those connections.
Manage the Emotions.
Emotions are part of what makes us human. We cannot suppress fear, if we do we eliminate the other emotions as well. Instead of eliminating it we can manage it in different ways. Instead of running from situations that scare us, we can take advantage of them. You can also turn that fear into power by developing your skills.
Have a Journal.
Keeping a journal is of the utmost importance to our journey as developers. When trying to solve a problem, many times we feel stuck without finding a way to move forward. Here we can write all our thoughts and ideas without fear of what other people think. You can keep track of your progress and get rid of the inhibition that comes when talking with team mates.
Go for a Walk. (Or do Nothing)
Our brain works best when it is in motion, we’re wired this way since the ancient times where we needed to move constantly. We can’t decide to coome up with a solution, but we lay the seed so that your subconscious mind work on the ideas. If you feel stuck in a problem you can opt to go for a walk or exercise to stimulate your subconscious mind with movement. Another option is to do nothing. Shower ideas happen because it is a time when we are in solitude. At every other time our brain is receiving an excess of input information from social media, meetings, work, etc… and it overwhealm us. We don’t give our mind time to process and incubate the solution.