Software Creation Mystery -

The Mind of the Programmer. Anatomy and 3 Contradictions

Brain: an apparatus with which we think that we think.
Mind, n. A mysterious form of matter secreted by the brain.
Ambrose Bierce

Human Brain

We expect that experienced programmer has perfectly logical, rational and consistent mind (at least during working hours). However, my experience shows that programmer has the same brains and mind as other people. Programmers do stupid things, overreact and act inconsistently. Why?

Buddha compared rational and conscious part of the human mind to the rider of the wild elephant – your emotions, passions and desires. As in the real life riding – you can hold the reins, direct elephant to turn, stop or go… only until elephant allows you to do so and has no desires on its own. (from The Happiness Hypothesis)

A programmer’s rider develops programs, a programmer’s elephant hinders or inspires – and certainly makes the process slippery and unpredictable.
Three contradictions within human mind help us to understand these relations better.

1. New vs. Old Brain (legacy hardware inside the brain)

Evolution did not build our brain from the scratch. Human brains represents three stages: reptile, mammals and human. (I sincerely apologize to believers in divine creation.)

The oldest and most primitive part is the reptile brain (brain stem). It controls behavior related to our survival like sexual desire, the search for food and the aggression responses of “fight-or-flight. It is instinctive and automatic. Territory is acquired by force and defended. Might is right. There are no emotions; reptile even eat own hatch. This is a cold-blooded essence of reptile brains, which forms innermost part of our brain.

What is your reaction when somebody blames that you have created bug in the program? What is your reaction than you realized after few days of investigation that this is a Microsoft’s bug? What about distracting thoughts about sex when you program. All these reactions are reptile.

Mammals added new outer shell to reptile brain also called limbic system

It enabled

  • experience-based memory, learning and responses (hippocampus);
  • basic drives and motivation; feelings and emotions like attachment, anger and fear (amygdala).
  • automatic control of body functions such as digestion, the fluid balance, body temperature and blood pressure (hypothalamus)

Mammals are more consciously aware of itself in relation to the environment and less rigidly controlled by instincts. This brain is a source of our emotions and intuition.

Do you want to become an alpha geek? Are you excited or stressed when your boss is coming? Do you remember where is your work? The mammal brain helps with this.

And the mammalian brain became the human brain by adding the massive gray matter (neocortex) which covers most of the older brain and amounts to about 85 per cent of the human brain mass. This massive addition consists mostly of two hemispheres and became effective thinking and learning machine, which could also deals with complex social emotions like morality, trust and behavioral control (prefrontal cortex).

This gray matter makes us programmers, allows us to think, speak and perceive (cerebral cortex). The frontal lobe executive functions also makes us socially responsible and keep us from doing inappropriate things – otherwise, we wouldn’t work, respect other people and obey company policies.

These 3 structures are highly interconnected and cause complex human behavior – source of many problems in software creation.

Neocortex made the rider possible, but it made elephant much smarter too.

2. Left vs. Right Hemispheres (different processing platforms inside the brain).

Left and right parts of the human brain are different in communication with mind.

Left Hemisphere – communicates by using words, has highly developed verbal abilities, is logical and analytical.

Right Hemisphere – communicates using images, is holistic, intuitive and imaginative, concerned with emotions and feelings.

The right hemisphere links the older mammalian brain using the images, which in turn is linked to the primitive reptilian brain. Human emotional responses depend on this link and more powerful than attempts of our cerebral self control.

Hemispheres process the same data differently – left brain processes in a linear, or sequential manner, the right brain processes data simultaneously. The right brain doesn’t provide explanations to our conscious mind. We have to use the left brain for the interpretation of our beliefs, decisions and inventing convincing explanations- often without knowledge what it caused.
How often did you find yourself providing excellent post factum reasoning for your decisions and actions – without any understanding of the real cause? How effective could be our communication with other people (which relies on the left brain) to exchange knowledge and experience? Is this a reason for popular believe that words account only for 7% of communication?

3. Controlled vs. Automatic Behavior (single threaded program and brain OS)

We have two process systems in the mind – controlled and automatic. Most mental processes are happened automatically, without need for conscious attention or control – breathing, digesting, driving and sometimes cursing others drivers.

Controlled processes are limited – we can think consciously about only one thing at a time, while automatic processes run in parallel and can handle many tasks at once. This is a way how our older brains (brain stem and limbic system) and the right hemisphere work.

Controlled processes are relatively new addition to the brain as oppose to almost perfect automatic processes, which formed for millions of years (especially in reptile brain). Controlled and verbal thoughts were evolved to make our responses more effective, but our brains were not re-engineered to hang control to the rider.

Evolution created rider to serve and advise elephant. We program, work and think just to serve our elephant in the main biological mission of our life – survival and spreading our genes


Now we understand that the rider is a controlled, sequential and conscious thought, which uses verbal communication of the left side of the brain.

Elephant is everything else – our emotions, instincts and intuition, which compromise automated and subconscious behavior of our biological essence.

Our wild, unpredictable and self-will elephant is the main source of troubles in the rational world of the software creation and the main contributing factor to the human forces. It is surprising how we could create programs at all.

But how can we tame and cooperate with our elephant? See the next post.

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Caught this on and figured I would take a look. Glad I was able to considering the highly informative content I found here. As a student in software development, I have been looking for some decent blogs on the subject for awhile now and this one is at the top of my list. Keep up the awesome work.

Comment by Ryan | June 26, 2007 12:01 am

interesting take on the brain, I love how you compared it to a computer system….especially since I am a programmer. Cheers!

Comment by noah parks | February 5, 2011 12:08 am

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