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My Subconscious Is a Better Developer Than I Am (johnnyreilly.com)
206 points by johnny_reilly on Nov 13, 2016 | hide | past | favorite | 116 comments

If you look carefully enough its not only the developer in you but anything meaningful or living in your life is done by someone other than what you usually refer to as me. Normally, such phenomenon is mostly associated with ideas we get on waking up or during shower or exercise.

My observation is that whenever you do anything that's unscripted or unplanned - it's "someone else". Say - answering well an interview with questions that you never expected and had relatively less exposure to, writing a blog post when you plan to write something but then all the ideas rush in and begin to write themselves and so on. I'm from India and I find it hard to communicate with western people these ideas directly. A contemporary ideas that's closest is the Dennet's theory of Narrative Self. Essentially, this article is the author's narrative self trying to make sense of the overnight solution the got.

it was interesting when in article he says such ideas come to him sometimes not all the time - one thing he can do to improve this is to subdue this narrative self a bit. A very good video on this point is by Alan Kay in context of Inner Game of Tennis: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=50L44hEtVos

Think about what happens when you decide where to eat for lunch. There's an internal process whereby you propose various images (hamburger? pizza? Mexican?). Something else "inside you" says, "Nah, that doesn't sound good. Hmm, maybe. Yeah, that!"

Who are you asking? Who is answering?

I had a discussion with my friends many years ago that your comment reminded me of.

I don't "visualize" things I think about automatically. I'd need to concentrate on trying to visualize pizza to see it and even then it's a vague visualization with no real defining features. When casually thinking about pizza I don't visualize anything.

Some of my friends couldn't not visualize what they were thinking about. If they think of pizza, they "see" pizza in their head, and could even describe what they were visualizing in that instance in surprising (to me) detail.

We found that we were pretty well split 50/50 with no obvious associations.

There have been a couple of articles about aphantsia on HN. I'm having trouble finding them.

Here's two



How can I know that having / not having aphantasia is a real thing? Our bodies are otherwise so similar that it would be surprising if our brains were wildly different in operation.

If people are able to "see" their thoughts in the same way as they see something with their eyes, wouldn't it be difficult to think about a cat while driving a car, because the cat would be in your visual field? Or is the "mind's eye" somewhere else, if so where do you feel it is?

If I think about a cat, it's kind of a concept. If I try to think harder, I can sort of trace its tail and fur and ears, but it seems very different to actually seeing one. Just as when I imagine a taste, it's very different from actually tasting something (otherwise I would just imagine food all day without actually eating as much).

The only time when these seem the same is when dreaming.


(from phantasia, the greek word for fantasy, literally meaning "lack of imagination")

Very interesting posts, thank you for sharing.

I never knew there was a word for it! Thanks, I've got some reading to do now!

I've always wondered if I had this too. I'm wondering how you describe visualize? I understand the concept and the parts and everything that pizza is but I don't necessarily visualize it. But if I was required to, I could probably draw one. Is that similar?

I circumvent that by eating pizza for every meal. It is the only way I can truly know that I, am me.

Can confirm. Eating pizza.

Without trying to sound like a complete schizophrenic, I feel like I am me, but when I read about something like your post and I actively think about where my ideas come from, I feel like the person suggesting them is just ahead of me and that the act of trying to observe my own thoughts sees him duck down faster.

I can only liken it to trying to catch yourself looking to the side in a mirror in front of you. Clearly impossible but as a kid I recall trying this. Tantalising.

And in a few minutes I'll forget this other me and he and I will work together in concert until the next time someone blows his cover with a blog post.

That happens for you. How do you know it happens for other people? How do you know how many other people share your experience, vs people who don't have that internal monologue?

I don't. Just speculating. Would love to hear about different experiences.

What you're describing sounds like an outcome generator (which outputs the results of various possible actions) being fed into a utility function evaluator. As I understand, there is reasonable evidence for this being a functional model of part of human decision-making.

I've noticed that there's a conflict between the needs for communication and explanations, versus the more "mystical" (intuition-based pattern recognition, hunches, habits) aspects of programming (and debugging).

Also the thing when experience coalesces into aesthetic taste that makes wrong solutions just feel bad or ugly.

(It's also very possible to develop intuitions and tastes that actually aren't based in reality, kind of like erroneous folk wisdom.)

> "I'm from India and I find it hard to communicate with western people these ideas directly."

I'm from a Western country, and understand what you're saying, though I admit I did pick up on the general idea from Eastern philosophy.

If you were interested in sharing the ideas with Western people, perhaps you could do so in the form of thought experiment? For example (and this is only an example, I'm confident this won't be the best example for everyone), you could point out how much of human life exists at the subconscious level. Nobody knows how the mind works, yet the mind works regardless. Nobody consciously tells their bodies how to process food, or repair itself after it's damaged, yet it happens anyway. Considering the myriad of processes that the subconscious undertakes, wouldn't it be fair to say a large part of what makes us 'us' exists at the subconscious level?

That's not to say the 'narrative' side of our mind is not part of us too, but if that's all we know perhaps we're missing the bigger picture.

This is probably a bad example, since the same very thing happens in animals. Yet we like to think of ourselves as fundamentally different.

> "Yet we like to think of ourselves as fundamentally different."

Yes, we do don't we. Yet reality remains what it is. Perhaps by exploring with an open mind we can stop our preconceived notions from clouding our understanding.

I have been thinking about this for a while now. Occasionally I get bursts where I am truly "myself" and start to realize what is actually happening before going back into observing the "someone else" doing things. Feels very surreal and at the same time "real". Like "this is life and not the other dude". I find it very hard to describe these kind of things to other people but your comment nails it.

Though I am more curious how you can "turn it off" and be the one who does all the things all the time. Some people suggested meditation but I have yet to try.

> My observation is that whenever you do anything that's unscripted or unplanned - it's "someone else"

Depends how you view your brain and consciousness. If you consider your brain to be made up of many components, consciousness being one of them, then your inner monologue is a way of communicating you intent to those other components. These will then respond back as best they can, and the act of learning trains them to be able to give better responses in the future.

You are two https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wfYbgdo8e-8

I always come up with good ideas when relaxed, usually when not working on the problem (showering / running).

God why are they working us to death?!

Exactly. Without adequate sleep and time to engage in purposeless activity (e.g. walking) there can be no insight. But perhaps only creative minds come to understand this, which is why mediocre middle managers insist on long hours.

Woody Allens' "I am two with nature" is not funny after this.

This is going to be difficult to accept probably, but fwiw here's the gist of what modern psychiatry has to say: the brain is not divided into conscious thought and unconscious thought; rather, all the brain's work takes place unconsciously, on all topics, all the time. What we then call consciousness is a product of the fully occupied and engaged unconscious mind.

So in terms of the headline, your unconscious is not a better developer than you are; your unconscious is your only developer.

Furthermore, [while emotion and logic both exist] there are not logical thoughts and emotional thoughts, emotion is engaged in thought all the time. You will actually form different "logical" conclusions on the basis of your mood, emotional state, etc. (As an example in grossly stereotypical terms, this is what you might imagine happening "so clearly" in a PMSing woman; the fallacy is that men are not doing the same thing all the time, they are.) So, to the blog poster's point, his unconscious "better developer" is actually the emotional preoccupations of his consciousness getting in the way of his being able to get to realize what his uncounscious developer is capable of. [Didn't mean to overstate that: in the case where he notices his unconscious mind coming up with good work, sometimes it just takes more time to create/uncover a good solution; just saying it's the same portions of the brain continuing to chew on the problem, conscious or not.]

For people interested, the brain science book "Thinking Fast and Slow" is very good, it will convince you that your brain does not work the way you think it does. It doesn't necessarily say all what I said above, some of that comes from psychiatry. Freud's enduring contribution to the field was his realization how much unconscious thought was taking place. BTW the term "unconscious" is preferred because historically in the field, "subconscious" is a term associated with Jung's "collective unconscious".

The term unconscious is i think used for a non-reproduce able and deduceable though process. You can retrace the steps rational, process orientated thinking took you to a result. Even if provided by the unconsciousness, the illusion of control remains. Subconsciousness as stated by the author, is the type of processes, where the brain did not bother to invent a backstory for its product.

I felt immediately that my experience was different to the OP, since I do not perceive my "unconscious developer" as a different person but merely another perspective on myself. Thanks for suggesting how this arises systematically.

When I was in my teens and had lots of time to think about these things, I came to this conclusion. That I, what I think of as being me, is just a facade that moves things into and out of my subconscious. When I want to think about something, I 'query' the subconscious and wait for a response.

Forgive me if I put as much faith in this answer as anything else said by psychologists or psychiatrists over the last 100 years (I.e. almost completely irreproducible and constantly overturned claims). I'll believe it once psychology is reduced to computational neurophysiology.

100 years ago, the proponents of the "plum pudding model" and "ether" were still alive and kicking. Good science takes time, and must account for all the evidence. Psychology won't be reduced till we achieve "computational neuroemotional physiology". Don't let an enduring discomfort with human emotions give you a scientific blind spot to human nature, otherwise your AI will have trouble finding its way out of the uncanny valley. ;)

And yet the vast majority of experimental and even theoretical physics was correct (and simply a limiting case of a more general theory), in diametric opposition to psychology. Physics has never thrown the baby out with the bathwater, but psychology does it every generation or two.

> computational neuroemotional physiology

Not sure what you mean by this. Computational neurophysiology would obviously subsume emotional behavior (unless you subscribe to dualism).

You seem to have nothing to say on the topic of emotion, except that the 1000's of people who study it in universities, clinics and hospitals around the world have nothing correct to say...

I am certain that your emotions on the subject are clouding your judgement. But to be the consistent razor of occam as you present yourself, shouldn't your term be computational neuro? what does physiology have to do with it?

What are you on about? I'm not talking about emotion; in case you forgot, we're in a thread where you provided some pseudo-scientific claim about the nature of consciousness. I'm questioning the validity of that claim. You seem to have gone off on a tangent about the nature of emotion.

fwiw, I was describing in layperson's terms what is going on in the brain, in response to which, you are being too reductive. It's like you're telling a chemist to stop talking about what we know about chemistry because it's all quantum mechanics, or a chemist telling a biologist that it's all chemistry. Well, sure it is, but I only post when I have something to add to the conversation. The average person is unaware of how much in the brain is unconscious thought, and the average person believes that emotions are separate from thoughts. I think my presentation was perfect and succinct to achieve that goal, and I contributed to a greater understanding.

I hope you don't imagine that consciousness in the human brain would be possible without integrating all of the unconscious thoughts and emotion-thoughts taking place under the hood. I'm certain that you are not aware that it was your emotions driving you to reply to me, and not logic.

And building a computational brain neuron by neuron? sure, as long as you throw in 20 years of cyborg childhood too... let us know how you're coming with that.

In what way would computational neurophysiology not capture emotions? Nobody is claiming that emotions don't exist, but I should hope we can agree that they arise within our neurons.

my point was not about where emotions or thoughts or logic comes from, nor do I think that's particularly relevant to the "My subconscious is a better developer" idea. My point was that conscious thoughts are (1) the result of many unconscious thoughts and (2) driven/influenced much more by emotion than people realize. To add that underlying it is neurology is like saying underlying that is chemistry and quantum mechanics. In this context, so what?

Very interesting article. I read something about Donald Knuth stating that he has to get used to material for a while, until he is so comfortable that he can think about while doing other things. Only then he would be able to produce something useful about the material.

Also, the mathematician Ramanujan often stated that a god handed the solution to him (I remember something about doing mathematics in his dreams as well, but I'm not sure if I'm correct on this one).

This seems very interesting. Is there a way one can get so familiar with material that you can use it without effort? The key seems to be a good mind and a lot of work. Ramanujan had to be fed by his wife, because he would prefer doing math to eating dinner, and I imagine Donald Knuth is very intelligent and a hard worker too.

A thing I've noticed is that repeated exposure works better than long exposure. I sometimes come up with some neat ideas when I read stuff (usually mathematical or coding stuff).

It happened a couple times that I remembered such an idea, looked at it again, and discovered the idea would not work because of a single inconsistency. I am quite chaotic, and I imagine that smarter people would have this problem a lot less, but still I think this is a general principle that holds: working conciously on a problem causes tunnel vision. If you don't know how to solve an exercise in an hour, you're not very likely to solve it in ten if you just keep working on it.

If you let it rest and look at it again after a day or two, there is a moment where you try to recap and remember everything. In this instance, simple inconsistencies are easily spotted. Letting the problem rest gives you a chance to look at the problem with a fresh view, which is very important sometimes.

This makes a lot of sense when you consider more just how small a role your "conscious" mind plays in your cognition. It is really more of a control center, and has direct access to a very limited amount of your computing power. You can't consciously monitor all of your sensory neurons, or make use of the math processing your mind can do to throw a ball, or manually coordinate your muscles.

You can see the effect of this very clearly while talking. You don't plan out each word ahead of time, you go to say something and the words come out. You can choose to take a step back and plan things in more detail, but this isn't your default mode of operation. Also even then in your head the words tend to seem to just come from somewhere in a stream, like a little stimulation of what you were doing talking out loud.

It is not generally helpful to think of this as a different person, it is you and you stand to gain a lot from learning to trust it. Like how you trust it to be able to recall minute details of API documentation despite not being able to reproduce them in full. You can't recall every code problem you have ever solved, but in a way your subconscious has, and it has been refining them into a process to produce those incredible insights.

I agree. Also, some people groping with this idea will use the word "unconscious" when referring to the subconscious but the distinction is important. The subconscious is always doing something, processing info, etc., even when we sleep, i.e. it is an active process. We aren't necessarily conscious of it hence the prefix "sub" or below consciousness. Unconscious implies inactivity, inertness like a boxer knocked out in the ring.

>It is not generally helpful to think of this as a different person,

I think this is down right harmful and one of the psychological manifestations of the mind/body dichotomy. Disowning your subconscious is a path to neurotic behavior and unhappiness. It is "you" just automatized from your past and one of the most important tasks of the conscious mind is to monitor and correct automatized past errors through introspection.

You also don't know what your next thought is going to be. Furthermore there are strong arguments that free will is an illusion. See "Free Will" by Sam Harris.

The illusion of free will isn't, though :) Still trying to figure out what that means.

The concept "argument" presupposes you have freewill so its circle, self-contradictory non-sense to "argue" that it is an illusion.

Edit: for clarity

I'm not sure I understand what you mean.

Say that you believe X and I believe Y. If I present an argument for Y that amounts to presenting evidence for your consideration that Y is true and X is false. The implicit assumption behind arguing with anyone (even your self!) is that your mind is free to choose to believe X or Y, THAT is freewill.

If freewill is an "illusion" then "argument" is a hollow concept as well. If we don't have a choice in what to believe then what is the point of arguing?

I think argument still has a place in a world where freewill is illusory. Surely, one's opinions can change when presented with new evidence, regardless of whether that change originated from a free agent's conscious choice or a more deterministic background process of which one's consciousness is only partially aware. Furthermore, that change in opinion can have a meaningful effect either positively or negatively for both the conscious entity and the world at large.

Again, for the benefit of those who want to understand, you are smuggling in freewill via the concept "argument". You have no right to use that concept given your denial of freewill and it doesn't matter how many exceptions, qualifications or obfuscations you put on the concept "freewill", it is either a real capacity of our minds or it is not.

The essence of your position is that you are trying to convince me to change my mind and agree with you that I do not have the capacity to change my mind. It is a self-contradiction, as all forms of determinism are, and if you were consistent with your belief you wouldn't be arguing at all, yet here you are. I think (beyond a certain point) denying freewill is an inherently dishonest position but unfortunately you have plenty of company.

If you believe the sky to be green, someone may walk you outside and you will see the sky is blue. You do not choose at that moment to change your belief. You do not change your mind, your mind changes. There is no free will necessary here because updating your belief in response to evidence is not a conscious choice.

(Just explaining, personally I consider the question of free will to be a non-question.)

You are making assumptions. I never claimed I don't think freewill exists. Also, why would the absence of freewill prevent your mind from being changed based on the evidence another presents to you?

I would contend the opposite: all forms of indeterminism are self contradictory. Where does your free will come from? Either a choice is predetermined or it's truly random. What else could it be?

Indeed, the concept of free will is simply illogical and inconsistent. There is no space for it in even conscious experience if one is just honest about it. Sam has made that point quite clearly and Daniel Dennet's way out (a bit of randomness) seems weak to me.

I used this a lot while consulting (as System Architect). I usually instantly knew if something was a good or bad idea of going about things (or a technology to use), but would then often have to go off and do some intense research to provide the evidence of my totally gut-based opinion. Often I found such evidence sooner rather than later, but sometimes I did not. Since it still felt right, I'd present whatever I did find in order to try and persuade clients to go in that direction, and often it was sufficient to persuade them - especially ones I'd been working with for a while and gained some trust.

I can't think of a time where this instinct has been wrong (except when it instantly thought that Twitter was a terrible idea - and I'm still awaiting the final verdict on that one), although the real reasons why it was the right choice for a situation did not always become apparent until much later. I learnt to listen to this instinct, but wish I could gain better insight into its decision making process! :)

This is your limbic system calling. The hypothalamus and amygdala together produce judgements based on experience. The dopaminergic signal they send is what we call a gut feeling. They excel at managing/judging large amounts of information, especially in the absence of tools.

You might also call them the seat of learning. Dopamine is very sensitive to errors in prediction, which is how learning is mediated. What they are not is the seat of reason.

This is also (partly) why we are bad at distinguishing things we desire from positive judgements: they use the same signalling. That is when your neocortex is useful. Being able to override the limbic system is one of the defining characteristics of conscious behaviour. Feeling driven to do so is another dopamine-mediated reward structure: the satisfaction of solving a puzzle.

Start here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Limbic_system

p.s. my limbic system agrees with yours re.Twitter.

> You might also call them the seat of learning. Dopamine is very sensitive to errors in prediction, which is how learning is mediated. What they are not is the seat of reason.

Dopamine in what way? Since so many things affect its levels, from sexual stimulus to most drugs to simple sugars, are we at risk/chance of helping or hurting the seat of learning through such factors materially in your opinion?

I mean that an error in prediction will cause a rapid drop in dopamine levels, which motivates a desire to correct one's understanding. There's a limbic structure, the anterior cingulate cortex, that seems likely to be the origin of this.

As for those well-known dopamine stimuli like alcohol, sugar &c, I believe the worst case scenario is that you reinforce an incipient dependency on those things, thus contributing to addiction. I'll hold back on having an opinion about whether the reward sensitization itself directly harms learning. When it comes to sugar overuse, I'd worry more about insulin resistance having an effect on glucose uptake throughout the brain rather than specifically harming the limbic structures.

Interesting. I can't identify with this at all; I usually have a very conscious idea of why I do or don't like an approach. I don't have strong gut feeling about possible approaches one way or the other.

Totally experience the same phenomenon.

When I write proofs I experience it even more, there is a voice in my head (one that I do not identify as being 'me' and is virtually a black box) that directs me. I often have no idea where it is going as I am writing down statements, but it never fails to produce good results.

Reminds me a little of Socrate's voice.

Another commenter linked to the Wikipedia article on Bicameralism. If you're interested, you might want to check out "The Origin Of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind"[0] by Julian Jaynes. The jury is (mostly?) still out on whether or not Jaynes is a quack, but he asserts that humans used to be unconscious, bicameral beings who "heard" voices in their heads that would direct them to do things. I put "heard" in quotes because Jaynes thinks the entirely process was fully unconscious (in terms of the subjective consciousness we experience), but that as consciousness developed, people literally heard voices in their heads for a long time.

Socrates' voice absolutely reminds me of this. Jaynes thinks that the first "conscious" humans literally heard the "voices of gods" and that we eventually evolved to lose that as subjective consciousness took over performing the same function.

[0]: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B009MBTRHA/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?...

Personally I find when I run into an intractable problem, what works for me is to exercise. For me that is riding my bike on quite paths. It sets my mind free and increases blood flow. Fertile ground for solving problems.

I second the exercise approach, as I used to solve tough problems over quiet twenty minute rides on back streets with low traffic.

But the more I've learned (thus the more complex the block), the less effective this became. I worked on a passion project a few years ago where I was coding between twelve and sixteen hours a day for several months. When I was finally so burned out and weary that nothing worked anymore, I took that as a cue to call it a night. The next morning, almost without fail, I had an elegant solution in mind before I could even make it from bed to keyboard.

My subconscious definitely IS the ultimate problem solver. The form that it takes has evolved with the difficulty of the challenges it has to solve.

I tend to be more tortured by my dreams of coding, I toss the idea around in my head, but rarely come out with a solution. Any idea's on how to better utilize my dream state?

Is it possible what you're seeing is driven by anxiety? Anecdotal, but I have noticed an inverse correlation between how likely I am to intuit a solution, and how much time I spend consciously ruminating on and worrying about the problem.

Indeed it is Anxiety. Happens mostly when I am on a deadline with more things to solve then I have time to do. Maybe if I practice meditation, it will help me let go of anxiety before sleep, which will help me sleep better and make my dreams more productive.

I get that too, but only when I code to close to bedtime and can't let go of the problem.

> The next morning, almost without fail, I had an elegant solution in mind

So many here (and I and folks I know) had this experience that it might be productive to schedule 1 or 2 naps into such long work days. Could very well enhance the total daily outcome of the 12-16 hour day and nights will be proportionately shorter more or less. Will try.

also has many great long term benefits https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neurobiological_effects_of_phy...

have you tried meditation too? exercise works great for me but it can also make me tense if I overdo it. meditation has many additional benefits particularly for this sort of subconscious delegation and helps to wind down after exercise (reduces cortisol, which exercise increases)

I practiced Qigong for years, but let it fall away from me when life got really hectic with work and kids. Really need to get back on some form of meditation.

I second this, but I prefer to go for jogs instead. Then again, I've recently started to enjoy exercise for itself and I feel that I'm much calmer in my head when jogging or walking than when I'm sitting still. So maybe its just a product of being calm so you can think about the problem in a less stressful environment.

Maybe that's why so many people say that meditation helps. Personally I prefer exercise though.

I've definitely experienced this, but more recently I've started experiencing something similar at a smaller scale - my subconscious finds syntax errors before me or the compiler do!

Sometimes I write a line of code and have this feeling that it's somehow _wrong_. More often than not, the moment I try to compile and run it, it fails. The problem is that usually it's only at that point that I become fully aware of this feeling. I'm actively trying to pay more attention to this, and really listen to my subconscious when I "know" that the code is wrong at a subconscious level.

I'm like this, to the point that I actively harness it: whenever I have some bigger problem to work on I read it and just not work on it for the rest of the day. In the morning I just know I'll have a much better understanding of it somehow.

The morning always brings answers no matter how complex something seems. I find it extremely relaxing, just being aware that if something is frustrating I can just drop it for the day and tomorrow I'll know what to do.

Sleeping me is a damn fine mate to have covering my back.

Yeah I purposely load up problems in my head before going to bed... then when I wake up, they're magically solved without any effort. It also has the benefit of being a natural alarm clock: sometimes I have to get out of bed and type the solution in and then go back to sleep.

Paul Graham has an essay "the top idea in your mind" where he talks about what you think about in the shower:


It's pretty much the same idea... what you go to bed thinking about is probably the same thing you think about in the shower in the morning. For me the solution comes WHILE sleeping; I don't have to wait to get up and think about it.

>There's 2 of me.

I would argue this is the line of thinking that makes us miserable throughout our lives. Associating 'me' with nobler instincts and pushing off all the undesirable traits to the 'other me that's not me' , the other me that needs to be constantly repressed via dieting, meditation, mindfulness,empathy training, zoloft, CBT ect. And of course none of these things actually work in any meaningful way because they are built on false premise of 'two of me'.

you're grouping a lot of things together there you seem to not know much about. some of them are actually supposed to combat the internal conflict you're referring to, like meditation. also seriously? CBT and mindfulness being compared to zoloft? you do know those things are just paying attention to your own thoughts right? try it sometime before making posts without researching what you're talking about. also how do you define "works"? what would constitute them "working"? if >X% of people report feeling better subjectively? I'm pretty sure the percentage is fairly high for most of those for the people who need them

and really it'd be more accurate to say there are three of us: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triune_brain

Personally I find serotonin reuptake inhibitors to be a great help solving some class of issues.

A lot of mindfulness things I have seen advocate accepting thoughts and observing instead of repressing them, I'm not sure it is fair to lump all of those things together.

You cannot deny there is a duality of subconcious vs conciousness in most people, but I definitely agree with you, if there is not a unity in those two parts, that can cause a lot of misery.

I find this video helps my understanding: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cWIJPSji6PE

Good points, but in some sense, the article writer is even worse off... it's like he's saying he's the crummy developer, and this 'other me that's not me' is the really good one! That's really sad.

> needs to be constantly repressed via ... CBT

oh well. the internet has ruined me (every me, not just the the me).

This immediately made me remember Dr. Milton H. Erickson who through conceptualizing the unconscious as highly separate from the conscious mind, with its own awareness, interests, responses, and learnings, he taught that the unconscious mind was creative, solution-generating, and often positive. This was a great influence and basis for big parts of NLP (neuro-linguistic programming), which was in part based on his hypnosis techniques. The NLP crowd believes that through some tricks and work on yourself, you can open a wider channel for your unconscious to show its potential, for example not having to wait a whole day for some answer to come to you.


Years ago when I read Milton H. Ericson's book: "My Voice Will Go With You", it made me think of all problems as something that my unconscious should deal with if I just give it the reins. It worked quite well, thank you for reminding me about something I used to do.


Hmmm so a reductive description of NLP sounds exactly like monotheism?

I did not describe all of NLP. A better description of NLP would be to say that it is a technique to model existing people that have a certain skill (like Milton H. Erickson), and then program other people enabling them to use the same skill. This is called in NLP "Modeling," and is actually a much better description of what the thing is about.

The Milton H. Erickson NLP Model is just one model out of many that NLP practitioners are talking about. But it is one of the more popular ones.

"The Origin on Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind" has some controversial but interesting ideas about divinity arising as a reification of brief conscious "messages" from the unconscious in times of stress or elation.

I've gotten to the point where I use this intentionally. I usually think of it as being the beneficiary of some pretty good hardware that just happens to live in the same skull as me.

I get this too - thought it was just me/my family.

I never seem to actually 'dream' the answer, or know what it is ahead of time. It just seems obvious when I look at the code again later, and I totally rely on it now.

As others have said, actively thinking about the problem makes it less likely I'll solve it. Usually I just keep looking through my open issues, maybe writing a few lines, until I get that feeling I know how to do it.

Any other disciplines where this is 'a thing' - or is it just programming? I heard someone mention maths...

I definitely experience it a lot with math. I think the way we learn and "write" math is somewhat different from how our brain does it. So you need to give it a bit of time to translate everything to its language and back to the formalism we use.

Sometimes I feel like a problem is way easier in unconscious space, like I'm sure solution is there, I can almost see it but it needs time to encode it in the much slower conscious form.

Patrick Rothfuss (Kingkiller Chronicle) mentioned a similar thing in writing, I think. He'll be stuck trying to describe something and he just can't get it "right", so he'll go for a walk or something and later his mind will come up with the perfect prose to insert at the part he was stuck on.

Explaining this like there is some sort of magic second you is a bit strange.

The way i see it is not something that is solved while i don't think about it. Rather it is the brain moving information around and placing it in spots that fit and make it easier to access making the solution seam obvious.

This is not the first time it has been called "Magic". For example in "The Structure of Magic, Vol. 1: A Book About Language and Therapy" the book explains how people create inner models of the world to represent their experience and guide their behavior.


I'm not a professional developer but I also found that the solutions I find, the elegant ones, always come this way. My only conclusion is that this process is not algorithmic. Somehow, something top-down takes over the normal, trained, bottom-up. I refuse to name this thing as god or magic or whatever. It has no name yet and I don't need one.

Sometimes I wonder if I actually consist of multiple consciousnesses at the same time, all wondering what the heck the others are doing. And I don't mean that in a pathological way.

There's a GREAT book that discusses this phenomenon called "Society of Mind": https://www.amazon.com/Society-Mind-Marvin-Minsky/dp/0671657...

Every HN'er should read it. Basically, we have all these "mini-mentalities" in our brain, but they "talk" (or don't talk) together in different ways. Definitely interesting if you're an AI guy.

Well the one typing sure doesn't know what the one in charge of the stomach is up to, it just sort of talks to us by yelling incoherently and causing various levels of pain.

Yeah, same thought here. So frustrating there's no way of knowing with current our current knowledgeb

I get this all the time when coding. I'll either write some crappy code that works but isn't elegant, or I'll hit a wall. Then either I'll go for a bike ride and get the answer, or I'll wake up in the morning and just type in the solution.

Thing is, it only works if I really care about the problem. I have to have gone through a period of trying to see it from multiple angles and failing to find a nice solution. I have to have tried and failed. I never get the answer for free.

I've even dreamed of coding the solution, either seeing the code or some geometric solution in my dream. When I see the code in my dream, it's not readable, it's just the "form" of the code.

edit: it's almost as if conscious thought is "programming" my subconscious to find a solution

"I have to have tried and failed. I never get the answer for free."

Absolutely my experience. One person who changed my entire belief around creativity is John Cleese. His basic premise is that creativity is all about hard, really hard work. You will spend the majority of your time coming up with the obvious ideas, and only after exhausting them will the truly creative ones happen.

More often than not I will do exactly this and it isn't until a night of sleep afterwards that the best ideas surface. This has been my experience with tough problems in coding as well as those with game design.

For mind bending check the great explanation from CGP Grey, "You are two"[1], which argues the two brain hemispheres can operate independently.

[1]: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wfYbgdo8e-8

You beat me to it. One of my favorite videos ever (more https://goo.gl/o0zYbu), puts a lot of stuff into perspective.

This is similar to the dual process theory outlined in, "Thinking Fast and Slow". It's partly why interviews are so hard. Your subconscious, system 1 mind, alerts you to solutions and danger and you need system 2 analytical reasoning to explain solutions. Unfortunately your system 2 doesn't work very well under stress.


If you want to glimpse how your subconscious puts the pieces together, I recommend "image streaming" technique. It's possible and so fascinating to observe how your mind always tries and tries and tries to connect/combine various concepts until it latches on to something that manifests as conscious thought, and then goes on, creating images in the process.

Great article! But I think you're missing the main point that you're not a software-development machine - you are a walking, talking, living human. And what you've described is the same decision making process described years ago in books by such renowned authors like Agatha Christie. Admittedly, she wrote fiction - but read at least one novel about Hercules Poirot, and you'll notice a pattern of thinking that is exactly like what you've described. The brilliant Belgian detective with a carefully maintained moustache would gather all evidence, observe everything he could regarding the case he was solving, and eventually find the right answer bubbling up from his subconscious. Same thing with Sherlock Holmes, same with Colombo if you're into all that stuff (I definitely am). Just because you're a software developer doesn't mean you're suddenly not a human anymore. The fact that your subconscious mind gives you the answers is simply how it works, and there's no way around it. For reference, see the Learning How To Learn course on Coursera - https://www.coursera.org/learn... - luckily they haven't made this one paid-access only, so you can enroll and see the first few videos to learn how your brain... learns, and comes up with conclusions and solutions to the problems you're facing. The most important thing I remember from the course is that our brains work in two states - focused and diffused. In Focused mode you kind of direct your pattern of thought from node to node, you're in control of your thought process but have access to a small database. In diffused (or relaxed) mode, your brain does the work for you, accessing a vast database in your brain that you can't recall using short-term memory. Thus the feeling that solutions, or conclusions come to you, but aren't devised by you.

But if you didn't do the work of accumulating information and gaining experience everyday, your brain wouldn't give you those solutions/conclusions at all. So in reality it is you solving those problems all the time.

Working things out from first principles is possible in principle(sic), but usually requires too much processing power. Chess players get better because as they practice, the memory many constellations of pieces relative to each other, and what outcomes they favor.

The same applies to many mental skills: you learn about problems and possible solutions, and then when you approach new problems, you recognize parts of those problems, or structural similarities.

How likely is it, that given the C language reference, and some hardware specification manuals, you'd arrive at the Linux kernel, with no programming experience? Possible, but only in the theoretical sense.

The message behind my ramblings is that you should embrace your experience and intuition rather than striving to work from first principles.

My assumption for this has always been I've had time to check off why my first group of ideas won't play out well "like chess moves" which leads me to a better more thought out move. This new idea is created with the reasons why you dot want to do your other idea "cost to much, burns to much CPU , over engineered whatever..". Takes time to narrow down what you really want to do and yelling out 3-4 ideas the first minute is a good start but giving it time is important.

Glad to see I'm not the only one to feel like this!

Sometimes when I'm working on something really hard I purposely go to sleep in order to keep thinking about the issue in my half-sleep, when the limit between conscious and unconscious thought starts to fade.

Then more often than not I wake up with an uncontrollable urge to implement a crazy solution that often happens to work.

I believe the credit is still mine, and the mind works in mysterious ways.

I didn't really understand how to solve recursion until I spent a day thinking about it, then tried to fall asleep. the solution appeared in my half-asleep mind, fully formed. I woke up, wrote it down, and went back to sleep. In the morning, I typed in the program and it worked on the first try (until I inicreased the recursion depth beyond what my 286's stack could handle and it crashed).

Obviously it's the intuition, it hits you when you're not expecting it. It happens to me with music or any side project I could have. Also it happens that I solve a problem in the morning without thinking about it. We should have a subconscient IDE, it would make wonders.

Also, keep a paper and a pencil next to your bed just in case you think about something in your sleep, it helps you fall asleep better.

I'm just going to leave this here. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alien_hand_syndrome

(And yes, I've woken up in the middle of the night and had to start working on my computer because the solution to a problem came to me in a dream.)

For amateurs to become better chess players, they:

* Learn basic endings like KKR

* Review their tournament length games for where they made sub-par moves

* Learn tactics like pin and fork

* Replay grandmaster games

* Do two to mate chess problems, and other such problems

* Learn strategies like best placement of pieces, proper pawn structure etc.

* Learn openings (when one is more advanced)

Some of these can be reasoned out or explained step-by-step. Some can not - like doing chess problems. How does that make one a better player? In some ways it does not make sense, but in some ways it does - after doing many chess problems, I start "seeing" two to mates when they appear on the board, whereas I may have missed them before. When you do dozens, or hundreds, or thousands (Polgar book) of these two to mate problems, and redo them until you can see two to mates within seconds, your brain gets good at pattern matching, and you become more adept at seeing two to mates when they appear on the board during games.

One interesting thing is the first time you see a two-to-mate, it may take a few minutes, maybe even 20 minutes to find it. After subsequent review it may take a few seconds. Do this thousands of times, and it shifts from rational analysis to pattern matching.

Not sure how much should be attributed to the subconscious, and how much to cognitive impairment due to tiredness.

See The User Illusion: Cuttiog Consciousness Down to Size https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/106732.The_User_Illusion

Ive always believed this was true and now youve provided the science to back up my assertion.

Any difficult concept I've learned has co. e to me when I havent been actively rhinkong about it, Voila moments if you will

> It totally works but whose work actually is it? I feel like I'm taking credit for someone else's graft.

Probably true in this age given how much interaction with other develops we have

Everything you can't write down as a program is actually done by your subconscious, meaning that all of the hard steps are done by it.

The solution often lies in a good distraction

My subconscious mind is a better driver than I am. the moment I start thinking, I make mistakes.

The book "Hare Brain Tortoise Mind" is a great exploration of this phenomenon.

look up hammock driven development on youtube by that clojure guy. covers this in depth

The collective subconscious and the ability to tap into other people's experiences. Dead or alive.

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