28 January 2016

The number of ways to grow as a software developer is equal to the number of developers. One commonality is that the learning never stops. We will always have new languages, libraries: abstractions on top of abstractions on top of abstractions.

This is just the nature of the trade. It’s a factor what makes it challenging to newcomers. It also means that it’s important to learn how to learn. You want to be a well-rounded person with interests outside of software development, so it follows that you would want to get the best return on your time spent covering new material.

One of the ways to do this is to spend some time learning about how the brain works. A great resource that I’ve relied on is Dr. John Medina’s Brain Rules. There are not a few books out there on brain science, but one of the reasons that I like Dr. Medina is that he only relies on peer-reviewed, replicated studies.

It should go without saying that the brain is immensely complicated. As Medina puts it, “if we ever fully understood how the human brain knew how to pick up a glass of water, it would represent a major achievement [in science].”

Medina breaks down what we know about the brain into 12 rules. I’m not going to cover them all - I could never do them all justice. (Although I do highly recommend the book if you ever get a chance to read it.) I’m just going to highlight a couple of them that I found to be particularly relevant to those of us in the software development trade. If you’d like to read about all of them, check out brainrules.net.

Rule 1: Exercise Boosts Brain Power

Medina’s first brain rule is Exercise boosts brain power. Our bodies were meant to move. We hunted, farmed, and ran from predators since the beginning of time. As software developers we hunt bugs, farm unit tests, and the only thing I run from is our CEO when he asks for next year’s conference sponsorship budget.

“There is no greater anti-brain environment than the classroom and cubicle.” (Medina)

Fundamentally, exercise improves cognition by improving blood flow in our brains. Blood flow is connected to gathering oxygen. Getting that oxygen to our brain is pretty darned important. If you don’t believe that, just try holding your breath for the next five minutes.

Imagine if you had to do your job using a 2400 baud modem. It would really hamper your ability to read Stack Overflow, wouldn’t it? You’d prefer to have a nice symmetrical fiber connection, preferably a gigabit one.

I grew up in a rural community in east Tennessee that even now still does not have cable or DSL available. For many year, the best option was Hughesnet Satellite (because “what else are you going to do?”). At one point, my dad declared that he had figured out how to make his downloads faster. I was immediately nervous that he had downloaded some kind of malware advertising better compression.

“How did you make it faster?” I asked.

“Well, I get myself a nice glass of scotch and sit down at the computer. I type in the web page, and then I sip on glass of scotch and take a nap. When I wake up, the web page has finished loading!”

(Note: I do not recommend this method of boosting internet speeds. Particularly at work.)

A faster connection doesn’t necessarily mean you can access new content, it just means your access to it is much easier. Similarly, exercise “stimulates the blood vessels to [improve flow].” It allows that blood, and the important oxygen and food that it delivers, to “penetrate deeper and deeper into the tissues of the body” [and brain].

Medina covers several other ways that exercise improves cognitive ability, too.

“The benefits of exercise seem nearly endless because its impact is systemwide, affecting most physiological systems.” (Medina)

Ultimately, I run because I know it’s good for my brain and my body. Penultimately, I work with a crew of really smart folks and if I ever hope to be able to keep up with them I have to keep running to stay sharp.

“Exercisers outperform couch potatoes in tests that measure long-term memory, reasoning, attention, and problem solving skill.” (Medina)

According to Medina, the gold standard for exercise ROI is 30 minutes of aerobic exercise two or three times a week. That doesn’t seem like a big ask to me.

Rule 2: Sleep well, think well.

This one should seem self-obvious - we all know that it’s important to get a good night’s sleep. It’s almost become something of a platitude. However, the science most certainly backs it up. If you want to learn well or perform well rest is very important.

I say “rest”, but what’s going on in your brain at night really isn’t very restful. During REM phases your brain is quite active. There are valleys and peaks of activity all through the night. Those peaks, the REM cycles, are doing something important to your cognitive ability. One study has shown that if you are teaching rates to navigate a maze and you interrupt their sleep during the REM cycle they do not perform as well. It hampers their cognitive ability.

Medina spends a lot of time going over the battle between the circadian arousal system (the process that wakes you up) and the homeostatic sleep drive (the process that tells your body it needs to rest). It is important to note that most brains reach a stalemate in this battle in the mid-afternoon. This leads to the afternoon dip that most of us experienced. There are studies that have shown that a short twenty minute nap during the afternoon measurably improves cognitive ability in the remainder of the day. Medina points out that if you’re a speaker, avoid the mid-afternoon. It’s the most difficult time of the day for most folks to pay attention.

Those are just two of the twelve brain rules that Medina covers in his book. Some of the other rules cover stress, attention (you can’t multi-task as well as you think you can), and the importance of exploration. If you’re interested in this subject, check our his book. You can also get a nice outline of all of his rules at brainrules.net.