Code And Cocktails

SCNA 2013 - Effortful vs. Automatic Brain

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Experts Don’t Know what they Know

This year’s SCNA Conference seemed to have several talks which touched upon the idea of experts having implicit knowledge. That is to say: they know things but can’t necessarily explain what they know, or why. Ken Auer and Dave Thomas touched upon it; during the panel on Software Quality it was also brought up (e.g. Corey Haines’ amazing reference to Chicken Sexing). But I felt that Brian Marick’s talk took the idea and then added to it.

Bright vs. Dull Cows

Brian started talking about this implicit knowledge idea - giving his wife as an example. His wife (a veterinary professor) teaches her students to determine if a cow is ‘bright’ or ‘dull’ (a subjective diagnosis). Her students specify, day-after-day, if cows are dull or bright. She then corrects them. They usually ask how she could tell and she tells them something (drooping ears, nose-cleaning, etc.). But actually these specific clues are not really the way to tell. Those who can diagnose a cow as bright or dull cannot explain why.

This anecdote seems to show that the implicit knowledge of the expert is something that can be trained. When discussing this idea after the talk Corey Haines mentioned a conference session in which Michael Feathers gave where he had the attendees give quick good/bad judgment calls on snippets of code. Then tallied those up and found that some snippets had a large amount of agreement as to their good-/bad-ness. They then discussed and tried to determine why. In light of Brian’s anecdote however it seems that they might never find out why, but maybe they could train themselves by looking at a lot of code and being corrected when they get the judgment wrong.

(Brian hopes to use this sort of idea to be able to train himself to have a nearly physical reaction to bad code. While that sounds cool, I worry about a ‘Ludovico Technique’ for code.)

Effortful vs. Automatic

Brian then talked about two types of thinking: Effortful and Automatic. Effortful is the sort when you need to do a non-trivial arithmetic, or a parking in a tight spot. Automatic is when you do simple math like 2+2 or easy driving where you are sort of on autopilot. When you use the Effortful way, it actually takes effort. It is slower seems to be only possible to do it serially. Automatic thinking is faster, takes little effort, and seems to be parallelizable.

If you don’t have something in Automatic then your brain shifts to Effortful; sort of a cache miss. If you do something enough, or become good enough at it, you can put stuff into your Automatic cache.

Switching to Automatic

So how can this be done? While Brian offers the usual ‘practice, practice, practice’, he adds to it an interesting idea about ‘Set and Setting’. ‘Set and Setting’ is an idea from Timothy Leary about why drugs such as LSD seem to have very different effects in different people. The mindset (Set) of the person (which includes things like rituals which build up that mindset) and the Setting (environment) have a strong influence on the experiences of that person.

By being aware of which mindsets (and how to enter them) and what settings are most beneficial for programming (and even different types of programming) he feels he can move some programming tasks into his Automatic thinking area.


It seems to me that the idea of ‘Automatic’ and ‘Effortful’ adds to the idea of the expert’s implicit knowledge. Perhaps the expert’s knowledge is just an expression of Automatic thinking?

I’m interested in trying out the practice of being more aware of my own ‘Set and Setting’ with respect to code.