The human brain is a fascinating “device”, which allows us to function and makes each of us unique. It’s our Central Processing Unit (CPU), and unlike the CPU in our computers, we cannot replace our brain with a faster one. So then how do we evolve and make our CPU run faster and more efficiently? I guess nobody has that definite answer yet, but I got some clues about improving the way we think / solve problems / generate ideas from one of my favorite books, Refactor Your Wetware. (btw, this is a great book, do read it.)
Consider the image below, which I find is a funny metaphor of our brain (borrowed from the book).
For simplicity, our brain can be modeled as a dual-core processor with a single bus architecture. CPU1 is responsible for our linear, logical and language processing part of our brain, also termed as the L-mode. This is the part that we use most of the time, and gives us the ability to perform our day to day activities. For example, what does 12 + 4 – 10 equal to? Your L-mode processing just answered that for you, and it processed it in a sequential logic like so, 12 + 4 – 10 = 16 – 10 = 6, similar to how source code gets executed. This part of our brain does things relatively slow, and only utilizes a small portion of our capabilities.
Ever heard a verbal chatter that’s always going on when you are in “idle” mode? That’s your L-mode at work, because it’s always in a constant never-ending while loop, waiting for work. If it has none, it generates this “noise” in your head. CPU2 (right side of brain) is responsible for Rich processing, or R-mode. This is the part that never engages us in a verbally, but rather communicates to us in various forms, such as feelings, visual images, dreams, etc. Ever had a problem you cannot solve, and have the answer come to you in the most unsuspecting situations, like when you’re in the shower. That’s your R-mode at work.
Our brain store everything, and I mean everything, but unlike a database, we do always not index them. CPU2 will go off searching for your answer, acting somewhat like a search engine, returning some patterns or images as to what it thinks you might have a use for. This search kicks off on an asynchronous thread, and returns you some values possibly after several hours or days.
The bad news is, we have no direct control of our R-mode processing. To make things worse, we are able to only access one part of our brain at any time. That means if your L-mode is constantly dominant, your R-mode has no means of relaying it’s message to you. The good news is, you can learn to harvest your R-mode processing by trying some of these techniques.
Writing down your thoughts
Always bring along with you a notepad and pen. Whenever you come out with ideas, write them down. Pen your thoughts into a physical form, e.g. a personal wiki, a notebook, or a blog. I found blogging to be a great medium for relaying my thoughts and ideas. One recommendation is to start your morning with writing (can be anything), because that’s when your R-mode is most active.
Take a walk
Believe it or not, this helps. If you’re stuck with a problem for extended duration, go take a walk. That actually allows your R-mode to start working and your L-mode to quiet down. The point of walking is to not think about anything (especially the problem you have), but just to focus on walking. Take the time to enjoy the scenery, relax and let your R-mode process and have a chance at “talking” to you.
Engage your senses
Your R-mode interacts with you in a non-verbal manner and can be stimulated by using your senses. So try to shut off your L-mode and engage your senses next time you have a problem. Pose the question to yourself, then just relax and close your eyes. Try to make sense of the images that appear and describe them to yourself. That helps to coax your R-mode to give you more information.
Defocus to focus
Sometimes you need to defocus to focus. Most of us have a very short attention span, and we lose ability to focus over long period of time, especially when you work in an environment fill with distractions. A conversation somewhere, people asking you questions, or even the annoying Outlook “email received” pop-up are sufficient to make you lose your focus. To re-gain that focus takes time, which decreases your productivity and concentration. When you feel you cannot focus on what you are doing, go do something else (like take a walk). You will find yourself being able to re-focus your thoughts better afterwards.
The brain is a muscle, we need to develop it with the proper techniques. If you’ve noticed, all these techniques are all aimed at shutting off your L-mode and giving your R-mode a chance to work. It’s takes some practice to achieve that. Don’t believe me? Try this meditation exercise. Sit in a quiet room, close your eyes and relax. Try to focus ONLY on your breathing, and attempt to block out that L-mode chatter. It’s not easy at all, I’ve tried it. See if you can do it for 5 mins.
Interestingly, the more you use your R-mode, the better it becomes. If you constantly stimulate your R-mode to give you ideas, it will learn and appreciate that you found them useful, hence becoming more efficient at giving you more ideas. Similarly if you constantly reject your R-mode messages, it will eventually stop doing it and this is what might happen to you 🙂
As a programmer, good practices like rubber ducking and pair programming are all aimed at using your R-mode. Problem solving, ability to learn and simplifying complexity are all the traits of a great programmer, and we need to harvest our brain to be able to enhance these abilities. I hope you can keep an open mind, and give these techniques a chance, and let me know if they work out for you. Happy coding!
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