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Computing Thoughts
A Golf Ball to the Forehead
by Bruce Eckel
March 1, 2010
Summary
A participant in a recent writing workshop used this phrase to describe what her executive clients hoped for. That sudden flash of insight is what I'm looking for, too.

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I'm a bit of a writing workshop junkie. Some workshops have been amazing, so I keep getting drawn back, hoping for more. A writer/actor friend recently told me that the two groups of people who will buy anything are writers and actors. I think it's because both groups deal in the unrestrained world of infinite possibilities; it's much easier to get them to believe.

To be honest, I'm not sure if I've ever actually had the flash of insight in the way that it's typically described. For me it has always been preceded by months or even years of effort. When it happens, though, I get big endorphin releases that can last for days.

I'm beginning to think that, to lay the ground for these insights, you must go around knocking out foundational precepts -- things that are such fundamental truths that you don't even think about them, much less question them. This activity is disturbing and difficult at first. Perhaps it is even impossible for many, who can't imagine doing it, just as those of us who do it can't imagine not doing it.

Fortunately there are more resources appearing than the traditional ones like modern art museums. Seth Godin is one such, as he is constantly seeking different ways to look and think. He recently recommended Radiolab, a podcast and public radio show that is outstanding not just because of its amazing content (it is subtitled "on a curiosity bender"), but also because of its production -- they are always adding sound effects and doing other things to tighten up and densify the flow of information, to the point where your attention simply cannot wander. After an hour of listening to this intensity, you're hungry for another one. It makes you realize that most of the problems in our education system come from taking information and presenting it in the most stultifying way possible. In contrast, you could listen to Radiolab-style lectures all the time. The big problem with this show, as Seth Godin points out, is that they don't make them fast enough and that I'm going to run out of back episodes soon. But I don't care, I can't stop.

Radiolab gives you a steady stream of golf balls to the forehead. There's a downside, as people who have come to open-spaces conferences can attest: it ruins you for the old, tedious way of doing things. I suspect you just become aware that you live bored, but this awareness is disruptive and you can't un-open the can of worms. Go in with your eyes open.

I had a big golf ball to the forehead during the writing workshop. I will probably process this insight for years. It came during a rapid-writing exercise, where one of the things that appeared on my page was this:

We are irrational. Proof: We believe we are rational.

I've been unconsciously struggling with this issue for a long time. Why don't we just behave sensibly? Every time I see people -- including and especially myself -- do dumb things, the same question comes up: we know the right answers, or at least how to find them, why do we adamantly continue down the path of stupid?

If you assume people are rational creatures, then our behavior is crazy and frustrating. But why did there need to be a "dawn of reason?" And just because we have discovered reason and the scientific method, does that mean that it permeates our brains?

It turns out that we are not really wired for reason per se. It's not the way we absorb and internalize information, or make decisions. I get this not only from my own experiences, but from reading (Daniel Pink is a good resource) and also from the Memory and Forgetting and Sleep episodes of Radiolab.

Our brains are wired to seek patterns. Brains are such subtle pattern detectors that they easily cross into the realm where the patterns don't actually exist. This is why we need something like the scientific method, because our brains are a little too good at establishing cause-and-effect relationships -- so good that we need mantras such as "correlation is not causation."

I think the age of reason had to "dawn" because, in simpler and more brutal times, the basic correlations were correct enough. It was enough to see that getting hit by a stick or a sword would hurt you, and that putting seeds in the ground would grow food. Believing that performing a ritual to the earth mother would increase the crops might not be functional, but it was probably harmless and likely increased the number of babies.

It was only when we had advanced enough to start investigating subtler things that we needed to analyze reason, to distinguish when we had over-matched a pattern. More important to the beginning of reason was having enough people in that situation. Obviously there were pockets of struggle with reason, such as the Greek philosophers, but those were small bubbles in a society where the vast majority simply toiled.

So our basic mode is pattern matching, and only sometimes do we get to the point where we must apply reason to sort out the good pattern matches from the bad. But the other important issue about how we work is memory.

The most powerful way to remember something is through pictures that tell stories. The reason Radiolab is so effective is that they make you see what they're talking about, not only by telling the story well, but by adding sounds and other things that make you feel the reality of it. All memory systems, most of them ancient, utilize these pictures-as-stories techniques, because our brain works that way. The easiest way to remember something is to make pictures out of what you want to remember, and then connect those pictures in some story-like fashion.

If you've used these techniques, or just tried to memorize things through repetition, you'll discover that there's a certain squirreliness to memory. According to the Radiolab episode on memory, each time you remember something you do a certain amount of re-creation of that thing. Over time your memories change (this may suggest that a positive mental attitude will cause bad memories to become less bad, and a negative mental attitude will cause good memories to go sour). Memories can even be created and manipulated.

Even more important: as you remember things over time, the stories behind them can become more real to you. Thus, something that begins as a fairy tale can, over time, become a belief. The opposite is also true, that something you believed at one time can fade away. The difference seems to be in repetition and affirmation. Tell a story and assert its truth enough times, and people will believe it.

To summarize:

As with any discovery, this information can be used to great good or great evil, and it seems to me we have primarily seen it used for evil. And more heartbreaking, things that started out good that have been turned to evil. Basically, it's a formula for controlling people, and that's how it's used, especially when you throw in one other factor, which is described in Radiolab's "sleep" episode:

Things that happen in life that we can't seem to work out, and that seem important to us, cause our dreaming mind to go to work. But the most compelling motivator is fright; if something scares us, it's more likely to remove us from the gene pool so we'd better get on it while we're asleep, figuring out what to do the next time the scary thing shows up (interesting connection to visualization here -- like an athlete visualizing their actions to perform better, the dreamer learns to solve the problem in dream-world first).

So the formula for manipulating people is:

  1. Find something that scares them, or invent something that does
  2. Create a story and repeat it until the scary thing is believed
  3. Create a "solution story" that alleviates the scary thing
  4. Make sure that following the "solution story" performs the desired manipulation

I'll leave it to you to notice how this formula has been applied again and again throughout history to manipulate people into acting against their own self interest. Maybe not just throughout history, but right now. Also note that evil has a big advantage in that it has no hesitation using the manipulation formula.

Using the formula for good is much more constraining. In particular, you must stick to the truth, and that's problematic because we rarely get the truth right the first time (evil is quick to point fingers and say, "See, they're evil, they weren't being truthful"). The scientific method can never prove anything, but any theory must be disprovable to be legitimate, so evil can always claim that the truth is never being told. Alas, that's the difficult nature of the path; you can only attempt to tell the truth, knowing that you will fail, but not give up nonetheless. An intelligent doctor realizes that half of what they know is wrong, and they don't know which half, and yet they cannot give up trying to help.

One trap is the desire to have something be true. See my previous article on business management, a subject which is by and large merely wishful thinking. People want to believe that management is a science, so they create a story around that and try to make it true, and cause a lot of suffering in the process. Although it can appear well-intentioned, there is a foundation of greed which corrupts the outcome. This doesn't mean science can't help discover useful management techniques, but a company is not a machine, and never will be.

The world is made of stories, and you can choose which ones to believe and disseminate. You can proliferate stories that will control people and bring you power, and you will get that power at the same time that it spoils the world you live in. Or you can create stories that raise up the people that engage with them. This will not bring you power, but it will create a better world where you live. That's called enlightened self-interest.

What kind of experiences have you had that have given you "a golf ball to the forehead?"

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About the Blogger

Bruce Eckel (www.BruceEckel.com) provides development assistance in Python with user interfaces in Flex. He is the author of Thinking in Java (Prentice-Hall, 1998, 2nd Edition, 2000, 3rd Edition, 2003, 4th Edition, 2005), the Hands-On Java Seminar CD ROM (available on the Web site), Thinking in C++ (PH 1995; 2nd edition 2000, Volume 2 with Chuck Allison, 2003), C++ Inside & Out (Osborne/McGraw-Hill 1993), among others. He's given hundreds of presentations throughout the world, published over 150 articles in numerous magazines, was a founding member of the ANSI/ISO C++ committee and speaks regularly at conferences.

This weblog entry is Copyright © 2010 Bruce Eckel. All rights reserved.

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