Programmers and the Amazon Have This in Common

Tim Broyles Programming 1 Comment

Attention: The following article was published over 12 years ago, and the information provided may be aged or outdated. Please keep that in mind as you read the post.

Have you ever been stuck on a problem, some seemingly un-explainable production malfunction in the code? You’ve stepped though it with the debugger, run enumerable test scenarios trying to simulate what the user is doing, but still the issue remains? Likely so. What can you do?

My suggestion: take a walk! Like a silver bullet in the heart of a werewolf (okay, maybe not that dramatic), you branch onto a path that leads down solution road.

Why does this work? Why not just another cinnamon roll and diet coke to get your juices flowing? Believe me, the last thing I want to do is preach diet and nutrition. But this is about taking advantage of a natural process that is built into our bodies since we, as a human race, have been on two legs. Understanding the root cause of a phenomenon increases our chances of using it for our benefit. I could simply say, “Take a walk, and your code will rock!” But like the old wives proverb, “A stitch in times saves nine,” you’re left with a WTF moment. And, unless you have some understanding of context and rational, the catchy rhyme is meaningless.

I won’t bore you with a bunch of biology. After all, most of us haven’t had a semester of bio since high school or college. I will however ground you with two important details.

  • First, an apparent paradox (like jumbo shrimp) – your brain consumes 25% of your body’s energy, but it only 2% of body mass (source). That’s like your microwave consuming 25% of the energy bill in your house, or your car stereo consuming 25% of your fuel.
  • Second – all of that energy production creates very destructive waste. Just like the chimneys in a coal-fired power plant, your head is a first-class polluter.

This is the crux of the problem. Brain pollution is in the form of free radical electrons (nothing to do with the ‘60s). Think of free radicals like little Pac-Man bits damaging whatever cells they come into contact with. It turns out that Oxygen is the universal sponge that sucks out these neuron-killing buggers from your gray matter, and all of your other matter for that matter. Oxygen travels to your brain in the super arterial highway, which is why exercise is of such benefit. The more you move, the more oxygen rich blood gets carried to your brain which, in part, fetches those nasty Pac-Men – allowing you to keep your cognitive bandwidth! It’s really that simple.

I want to keep this short so here are the highlights.

  • Exercise in ANY AMOUNT increases blood flow to the brain, which carries Pac-Man-munching, Oxygen. The more exercise the better off you are, but just 15 minutes a day showed benefits over a couch-loving group (source).
  • Learning new concepts, constructs, and ideas creates new neural connections. Our field is rich in this area, as any specific technical examples like (Mobile HTML5, Google Dart, etc..) are out of date the moment this is published. Innovation is what technology is all about, so the possibilities of learning more are endless.

Take a look at this image:

This is a series of 3 snapshots of ‘your’ brain taken from above the head, while doing the exact same activity in three different moments in time. The dark area signifies greater activity.

  • Snapshot 1 (left) a person is learning to master juggling (or Groovy)
  • Snapshot 2 (middle) practice
  • Snapshot 3 (right) when the activity is mastered

This example shows why it is important to learn new things, and engage the whole brain.

In a 2005 study, Dr. Draganski and colleagues examined the brains of medical students (no med students were harmed in the making of this blog) as they prepared for exams. The study compared three different brain states: 3 months before exams, right at/after exams and a control group of students that were not studying for exams (perhaps heavy beer drinkers). In the group that was taking exams, Dr. Draganski found significant learning-induced growth in multiple portions of the brain. This is pretty cool. Think of it as a perpetual memory upgrade with multiple new core linkages! And what about the beer drinking group?

I’ll pretend you didn’t ask that.

Alright, so what do the Amazon rainforest and a programmer have in common?

According to the London-based Science Museum: “Your brain is the hub of your nervous system. It is made up of 100 billion nerve cells — about the same as the number of trees in the Amazon rain forest. Each cell is connected to around 10,000 others. So the total number of connections in your brain is the same as the number of leaves in the rain forest — about 1,000 trillion”.

The Point Is:

Every time you learn a new framework, language, or construct, your brain is undergoing a transformation. Your future and career growth is an investment in that real estate between your ears. Knowledge is power.

— Tim Broyles, [email protected]

Note: For an entertaining look at the brain and learning I recommend the book “Brain Rules” by John Medina.

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