Debunking The Myths About The Programmer’s Brain
The brain is fascinating. It’s complex and powerful, and despite the best efforts of neuroscientists, so much of it is still unknown.
Too often, folk neuroscience or simply brain-related words are used to sell us products or ideas without any real basis. This is how we get far-reaching myths about our brains and how they work. It turns out, much of what we commonly believe about the brain is nonsense.
For programmers, some of these myths are more relevant than others. These seven widely-believed myths about how the coder’s brain works need to be well and truly debunked.
1. Dopamine is a pleasure chemical that rewards your brain for fixing bugs
Myth: Dopamine is related to feelings of pleasure, and plays a large role in addiction, whether to alcohol, drugs, gambling or coding.
Fact: Dopamine’s effects are more closely linked to the expectation of reward, and thus motivation, rather than pleasure.
Dopamine’s effects on the brain are highly complex. Although the media and popular culture tend to position it as the ‘reward chemical,’ this is an overgeneralization. In fact, dopamine is more related to our skills in predicting success. That is, expecting rewards and receiving them (having our predictions confirmed).
This means that dopamine is more closely tied to our motivation to seek out reward than the reward itself, which probably comes from brain chemicals called opioids instead (although opioids and dopamine do overlap in our brains).
So, rather than getting a rush of dopamine in your brain from the pleasure of fixing a bug or seeing some new code run perfectly, dopamine is likely the chemical motivating you to keep working towards these rewards.
2. Coders are right brain thinkers
Myth: You’re either a right brain or left brain thinker. Coders are usually right brained.
Fact: Nobody is a right brain or left brain thinker.
Our brain hemispheres are inextricably connected. Both sides are co-dependent and each takes a part in most thought processes.
For instance: our left hemisphere is more dominant in processing language, but our right hemisphere is responsible for processing intonation and emphasis. So the two halves work together to decode communication. The two sides of our brains are simply distinguished by their different processing styles.
The origins of this common myth seem likely to have been 1960s research on patients whose corpus callosum (the band of neural fibers that connect the hemispheres) had been cut as a last-resort treatment for epilepsy. This removed the natural process of cross-hemisphere communication, and allowed scientists to conduct experiments on how each hemisphere worked in isolation.
Unless you’ve had this procedure yourself, or had half of your brain removed, you’re not right or left brained.
3. You’re only using 10% of your brain
Myth: Our brains have ten times the capacity we actually get out of them. Imagine the code you could write if you knew how to use the rest!
Fact: Generally, no part of the brain goes unused.
Before removing part of the brain, a neurosurgeon will carefully test the areas around it to prevent damage. There’s a reason for this: no part of the brain can withstand damage without us losing some kind of abilities or functions and having to compensate with other brain areas.
The idea that we only use a small fraction of our brain’s potential has been attributed to both Albert Einstein and to this quote from American psychologist William James:
“We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources.”
Where the 10 percent figure (or 11 percent, or 20, depending on where you read about the myth) came from is hard to tell, but modern research tells us that close to 100% of our brain is activated over a 24-hour period, and many parts of our brain function at the same time.
So essentially, no part of your brain is going unused.
4. You code better under pressure because your brain responds well to stress
Myth: The pressure of an impending coding deadline makes your brain perform better. It’s how the valley ships better than anyone.
Fact: Long-term or consistently recurring stress can kill your brain cells. Being under pressure also compromises your working memory, which is what most talented performers in any field rely upon.
Although some acute stress can affect your brain positively (and even boost your immune system), stress is generally a bad thing for your brain.
Being under pressure can worsen performance, even for the most talented coders:
“Understanding working memory helps researchers understand why ”paralysis by analysis“ happens. Talented people often have the most working memory, but when worries creep up, the working memory they normally use to succeed malfunctions. People lose the brain power necessary to excel and often wield what power they have left to their disadvantage by thinking too much about activities that are best left outside conscious awareness.”
Stress is also known to activate our fight-or-flight response and send cortisol rushing to our brain. Cortisol particularly affects our hippocampus, which is the area of the brain where new memories are formed.
Strangely, this can work in two different ways: a rush of cortisol following a stressful event can impress strong memories onto our brain. On the other hand, high cortisol levels over time as a result of prolonged stress (as a symptom of depression, for instance) can have adverse effects on our memory formation.
Over a long period, high cortisol levels can kill or deform the cells in your brain’s hippocampus. Which means butting up against deadlines on a regular basis in order to ‘turn out your best work’ is not a good idea.
5. Learning new things is possible because of the recent discovery that our brains are malleable
Myth: Neuroplasticity means that our brains can change throughout our whole lives as a result of our experiences. This has only been discovered recently.
Fact: The idea that our brains continually change been around since the late 19th century. ‘Neuroplasticity’ is commonly used now as a blanket terms for a wide variety of neural functions.
Though some neural functions like neurogenesis (the creation of new neurons) are rare in an adult brain, other processes like creating new synapses continue throughout our lives. Since the late 1800s, papers have been published on the malleable nature (i.e. plasticity) of the brain.
Neuroplasticity, like other brain-related terms, has entered popular culture and marketing copy without the context for us to fully understand its meaning or relevance. Its recent introduction to the mainstream lexicon has also made it seem like a recent discovery, regardless of centuries of research along this vein.
So it’s true that you can learn new programming languages and improve your coding skills throughout your life – it’s just not a new discovery.
6. Men and women code differently because they have radically different brains
Myth: Male brains and female brains are drastically unique from birth, affecting their skills and career choices.
Fact: There is no convincing evidence that male and female brains are ‘wired differently.’
Male and female brains do have subtle differences. Unfortunately, the popular consensus is often that these differences are remarkable and unchangeable. Dr. Cordelia Fine explains it like this:
“There are sex differences in the brain. There are also large sex differences in who does what and who achieves what. It would make sense if these facts were connected in some way, and perhaps they are. But when we follow the trail of contemporary science we discover a surprising number of gaps, assumptions, inconsistencies, poor methodologies and leaps of faith.”
Although boys and girls are born with difference inclinations, societal and cultural experiences influence us to behave in ways that extend this gap. This means that for adults, the contrasts between male and female brains are largely due to learning and neuroplasticity, rather than innate differences.
Cordelia also makes this point about our impressions of the brain:
“The sheer complexity of the brain lends itself beautifully to overinterpretation and precipitous conclusions.”
7. If a story about coding is backed by brain-related research, it’s reliable
Myth: Anything with brain-related imagery, words or ‘research’ is reliable.
Fact: Brain research is often chosen selectively to support a particular theory.
In her TED talk Beware neuro-bunk, Molly Crockett explains how pictures of the brain provide credibility and sales potential to marketing and product branding. Common myths like the ones discussed here, as well as meaningless brain-related terms pervade marketing and convince us of things we don’t understand.
Vaughan Bell points out that ‘neuroplasticity’ (see #5) is often used this way:
“Neuroplasticity is common in popular culture at this point in time because mentioning the brain makes a claim about human nature seem more scientific, even if it is irrelevant (a tendency called ‘neuroessentialism’).”
Clearly this is rubbish and every time you hear anyone, scientist or journalist, refer to neuroplasticity, ask yourself what specifically they are talking about. If they don’t specify or can’t tell you, they are blowing hot air. In fact, if we banned the word, we would be no worse off.
As every change in the brain can be referred to as ‘neuroplasticity’ you need to look out for what is actually meant.”
Trust your own brain
We’re surrounded by neuro-bunk, (or neurobollocks, or pseudoscience or folk neuroscience, depending on your preferred term). We even use it in daily conversation as if we understand it (how many times have you dropped words like dopamine, endorphins or chemical imbalance into conversations recently?).
This doesn’t mean that all neuroscience research is bollocks, just that we need to be wary of believing everything we read about the brain. Or buying every product that has a picture of a brain on the label.
Most importantly, remember that the brain is still complex and largely unknown. Don’t rely on pseudoscience (or even actual science) to tell you how you work best. Paying attention to your own brain is far more valuable.