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does programming make you dumber?

Back in college, I was pretty smart. I could sleep through all my math classes,and get A's (i have a math degree.) After college I needed some money, so I became a programmer (maybe I wasn't so smart...) I have been programming for about five years, and got bored, so I took an introductory cellular and molecular biology course at the local university.  I barely made it through the course.

I would think I would know the material, but would get totally destroyed on the exams. I didn't get destroyed on the exams because I didn't know the material - I studied about 3 or 4 hours a day. I got destroyed because I couldn't apply my knowledge of the material to the tricky questions. I.e. use "critical thinking skills." This was particularly worrisome because I thought that critical thinking skills were what I was developing all day at my programming job.  I've never felt so stupid in my life.

I have two theories as to why I sucked:

1. I'm old (28) and just am not as smart as I used to be
2. the "task switching" problem - working all day on something not really related to bio, made it hard to switch to bio at night

Has anyone else experienced this?

worried
Saturday, January 04, 2003

First "programming" means different things to different people. Second, at 28 you're probably just not onto studying as much as in college. You probably think you slept through your classes but I bet you actually put forth alot of effort...(maybe it's nostalgia)

Dean Wormer
Saturday, January 04, 2003

I don't have a good feelingh about either of your two hypothesis.

Is it possible that because you are now successful that you thought it wouldn't be too hard and just didn't apply yourself enough?

Is this a problem that has repeated in several classes or just one you have taken.

Don't forget hat in college, you were at the tail end of 12 years of having learned how to study and got to classes. Now you have spent more time working and designing and being creative which is different from schooling.

I suspect that if you took a few classes you'd get back in hte saddle.

Of course your familiarity with the prerequsites of the class you took are further in the past now than they were when you went through the first time.

X. J. Scott
Saturday, January 04, 2003

Coursework (attending lectures, reading textbooks, doing homework, taking tests) requires different kinds of thinking than programming for a living. Your mindset and way of tackling problems has changed to an approach that's more helpful in your workplace but less conducive to taking classes. That doesn't make you any dumber.

Julian
Saturday, January 04, 2003

I've done both intro to molecular bio courses and programming courses.  Almost everyone in the bio courses who were programmers or engineers failed miserably, because they kept trying to apply mathematical-style rules to biology.  Those rules only start to appear at a much higher level than intro courses.

Remember that a biologist is a chemist who failed math; it's not that you're dumber, it's that you're thinking too hard and applying way too much analytical thinking to what is essentially a regurtiation course.

Mark Roden
Sunday, January 05, 2003

What sort of programming do you do, and what do you think of it?  Not all programming is the same.

anon
Sunday, January 05, 2003

I do a combination of writing data clustering algorithms for microarray data sets (in perl) and typical "enterprise" style data management apps (display data in different ways on web site). In a previous job I did mostly 3-D simulations of human motion (dump a bunch of datapoints into an openGL model, watch the animation) . I took the bio course because I now work in a genetics lab and thought it would be useful. I also thought I could maybe use it as a prerequisite for medical school, but I no longer think that... :'-(

The main reason I'm worried is that I think I have the regurgitation down; my issue was when the test had questions where I actually had to think, I got screwed. However, someone else told me that my main problem was that I was "visualizing" the concepts. Like for instance, I would remember "mitosis" by seeing each step in the process. however, this guy told me that was way too slow, and what I needed to do was just do rote word association for each step.

worried
Sunday, January 05, 2003

"Remember that a biologist is a chemist who failed math"

Actually I've just bought two math books, both because they are relevant to my side interests, programming and evolutionary biology. The first is a pre-requisite for studying Computer Science; the second is a prerequisite for studying biology (in particular ecology). I can assure you that the math for the programming course is more basic than the math for the biology course (in case anybody wonders why ecologists need maths the answer is population demographics).

With regard to "worried's" question I suspect that it is the adaption to a different type of thinking that is causing the problem. Ask yourself why so many people who are really bright at other things are pretty hopeless at Math, and you will realize that Math thinking is possible a specialized skill.

If you're thinking everything through and that's taking too much time, don't bother. Just repeat the classes; you'll make the time up later.

And, no, programming won't make you dumb (which will rather kybosh your chances of becoming a manager!). If it did, then after twenty-five years of teaching - which is even more mind-deadeining - I'd be in danger of being mistaken for a concrete post.

Stephen Jones
Sunday, January 05, 2003

"Ask yourself why so many people who are really bright at other things are pretty hopeless at [Subject Y]"

This is really interesting since it could explain some of the situations where someone who appears to be quite brilliant becomes dumbfounded when faced with programming a VCR or setting up their browser settings or even simpler computer tasks. The computer model just doesn't fit their pattern of thinking.

X. J. Scott
Sunday, January 05, 2003

My dad is a doctor and a medical school lecturer, and he was telling me that when he uses the computer, he actually has to think out steps like this:

drag mouse device across mousepad

mouse moves pointer thing on screen

make pointer thing move to bottom left hand corner of screen

click one of the buttons when pointer thing is over box

etc...

i was sort of amazed by this. my mom, who is a nurse and thus has to spend a lot of time in front of the box doing clerical tasks, has already internalized all that. I'm assuming it has a lot to do with daily repetition. I couldn't drive stick at all until I bought a stick automobile and had to do it everyday...

hello
Sunday, January 05, 2003

I found that I had problems on the loigic portion of the GRE.  One person hypothesized that it was becasue I treated the problems like a debuggin problem.

I program slowly and cautiously, because I have burned many times by one little thing out of place; copy paste errors, etc.  My approach to problem solving has slowed down. 

See, in a test you care about how many you get right in a certain amount of time.  IN programming, you care about solving the problem, and you don't move on until you do.  Time crunches are made easier by going faster, you just make more mistakes and slow down getting the job done.

It is a difference in attitude and focus.

You are probably a better problem solver than you were in School, but on in the realm of coding.

Adam Young
Sunday, January 05, 2003

Adam, did you have a problem with the logical reasoning or the logic games?  I took the lsat and the logic games kicked my arse.  Once I learned the methods it became a lot easier.  I used the logic games bible:  http://www.powerscore.com/

Now I understand that they've done away with the logic games on the new GRE.

a. hole
Sunday, January 05, 2003

I know for sure that once I got accustomed to zero-based arrays, that screwed up my perception of reality permanently. Now when I see or hear "the first item in the series is ..." I can only think "wait, that's the zeroth item! The first item is the second! And the second is the third! Er, um..." All just so I could grasp that foo[1] == *(foo + 1) == *(&foo[0]+1)

Dan Maas
Monday, January 06, 2003

I have felt that I have been slowly going down hill since high school,  I am turning 24 tomorrow and I ... ohh look at the pretty birdy...... where was I.......

Matt Watson
Monday, January 06, 2003

Speed might have something to do with it. If you're used to programming you'll probably slow down because getting it right is the key to speed, not doing as much as you can in two hours.

To give an analogy they did tests on reading speed of various professions and found that the slowest readers were High Court Judges, who had a reading speed of around thirty words an hour, a tenth of the reading speed of an average not particularly literate person, and a twentieth of what is considered normal in somebody who is dealing with written matter all the time. What happened was that the High Court Judges would read even a travel guide as if it was a piece of overly complex legislation. I had personal experience of something similar when I found my reading speed halved when I went to university. The reason was that most of the time I was reading drama or poetry, so my reading speed dropped to the speed of reading aloud, even for novels and newspapers.

Also as you get older you find that you are much better at solving problems that you can relate to something else, but slower at those you can't. You are trying all the time to make links between the new knowledge and the old knowledge, and find it very confusing to try and move on until your new piece of knowledge has been assimilated.

Also, if you were only doing Math at university it could be that you never had to deal with learingi something that didn't come naturally. Suddenly you've found that you are just an average bright guy and can't adjust to the fact. But if anybody is telling you to remember things by random association, ignore him (and if it's anything to do with medicine keep in contact with him so you know never to be operated on by him!)

And can you guys stop claiming you are old in your twenties. That would make me nearly senile before you were even born!

Stephen Jones
Monday, January 06, 2003

"Ask yourself why so many people who are really bright at other things are pretty hopeless at [Subject Y]"

How do you know they are really bright at the other thing? I discovered many times that people tend to be very "forgiving" when faced with assumed authority.
People meet Professor X. They hear him toss about absolute nonsense about subject A, something they themselves are somewhat knowledgeable about. Yet they still tend to be very uncritical since after all, this is a professor: "oh, I'm sure he will be an expert on subject B".

Well ... no. I have witnessed this phenomenon very often, and no, in almost every case the pretentious nonsense was just as bad on subject B as it was on subject A. I have more than once seen this phenomenon eagerly exploited by academic charlatans in so-called interdisciplinary fields.

In my experience the correlation (if any) tends to be the opposite: people that know nothing about subject A (yet yap about it with confidence) do also tend to know nothing about (even unrelated) subjects B.

Just me (Sir to you)
Monday, January 06, 2003

"How do you know they are really bright at the other thing? "

Well, like they are top class chartered accountants, or barristers, or world-wide authorities on their particular field, but they still have difficulty getting their computer to work.

Or that they have clearly functioning logical and lucid brains yet are stumped by some or all fields of mathematics.

Stephen Jones
Monday, January 06, 2003

So Just Me, I am clearly a terrible programmer, and a lousy mathematician because I am unable to master even the basics of any foreign language? And are barely competent when it comes to doing DIY?

Don't be daft.

Unless you regularly push your mental limits your brain will fade. It is unlikely that a normal programming job will do this,  but it sure is better at it than selling fries.

Everything is relative.

Mr Jack
Monday, January 06, 2003

No, I did not mean that. Let me try to be more precise.

The thing my experience teaches me is:

- People that pretend to be very knowledgeable about a certain subject area, and yet clearly aren't, usually also tend not to be to very knowledgeable about other fields they pretend to master.
- People have the tendency to assume the opposite: He is clearly making an ass of himself on this subject where I feel I have some expertise, but since he is a "professional" he will probably be very good at subject B, where I have no expertise.
- This tendency is abused by some.

Just me (Sir to you)
Monday, January 06, 2003

Dear Just me,
                      You're right about people shouting off, though there are people with a wide range of knowledge. However, if the person is talking rubbish about your field, it is possible that he's a charlatan.

(though not always; you don't get much brighter than Niels Bohr yet after the seocnd world war he spent some years attempting to prove mathematically that evolution couldn't happen; he calculated the total number of species known since the beginning of the earth and rate of mutation, did the maths in his head because the number of computers in the world were in single digits and then announced his results. Somebody then informed him that actually species are merely the by-product of natural selection and the unit is the individual organism, so that his Math was out by rather a lot of powers of ten!)

The original comment I made though didn't mention people mouthing out their abilities.

Stephen Jones
Monday, January 06, 2003

Yse, me tink it doos ;-\

Doug Withau
Monday, January 06, 2003

When it comes to someone's abilities and their own judgement of progress, I do believe its all relative.  Programming is a specialization.  Just as many other's.  The ability to program a solution using the computer, requires a mental focus of many elements.  Joel explained it well proving how badly programmer's multitask between projects'.

As my experience grows and I continue my programming, my mind warps to thinking logically as if every problem is to be solved through some program.  This can be good and bad.  The solution must handle every imagineable predicament and not break.  On the other hand, because my mind is whipping through so many permutations and variables, and must keep the "big picture" in focus, when it comes to devoting more processor energy onto a single finite element (like some arbitrary math formula), it must halt, regroup, and refocus to keep everything in place.  Some may say this seems like sensory overload, and why most programmers talk so slow, with large gaps in their sentences.  While the articulation is great, the flow seems to crunch in some areas, and speed up in others.

I don't blame software development for making me feel dumb sometimes.  Its most likely the television that does that.  The brain is a muscle like any other, use it or lose it.

sedwo
Monday, January 06, 2003

sedwo said...
Some may say this seems like sensory overload, and why most programmers talk so slow, with large gaps in their sentences.  While the articulation is great, the flow seems to crunch in some areas, and speed up in others.

haha!  I get accused of that all the time by my girlfriend.  If I'm telling a story, I frequently stop and think for a second to get the facts straight, even if the facts don't matter that much.  I always thought it was a side-effect of having to be so precise with programming all the time.  Glad to know others have seen the same thing!

On the topic of "does programming make you dumber?", with the large gaps in some of my speaking depending on the subject, I think it could definitely appear that way to some people :)

Andrew Hurst
Monday, January 06, 2003

Me too!

Before I started programming for a living, I used to be able to speak rather well.  Now I tend to go off in all directions, explaining side points in needless detail before continuing with the main current, etc...

rally monkey
Monday, January 06, 2003

"I used to be able to speak rather well."

Er me too...

"Now I tend to go off in all directions, explaining side points in needless detail before continuing with the main current, etc... "

What is this? The story of my life?
So that is what has caused this? My wife complains incessantly about this very thing and I was not always this way.

X. J. Scott
Tuesday, January 07, 2003

"Now I tend to go off in all directions, explaining side points in needless detail before continuing with the main current, etc... "


Sorry to have to burst your bubble guys but in my country this phenomenon is referred to as rambling and is mostly associated with elderly ladies. I sincerely doubt they were involved in much programming in their lifetime.

Just me (Sir to you)
Tuesday, January 07, 2003

Just Me. My apologies I misunderstood your point.

It's certainly true that there are people who have got were they are by sounding confident while spouting drivel. But I would not be so quick to dismiss anyone who spouts rubbish in one area, while claiming knowledge in another. A little ignorance can be a dangerous thing.

Many people have tried to apply the knowledge they have acquired in one area to another and failed miserably simply due to missing a small but signifcant difference.

Mr Jack
Tuesday, January 07, 2003

Only 30 yet exhibiting signs of being elderly.  Damn.

rally monkey
Tuesday, January 07, 2003

30!?  damn, I'm only 22 and exhibiting those same signs.  Though to clarify, it's not that I'm rambling, it's that I'm talking slow with too much weight given to precision and accuracy where it doesn't matter, rather than the story.

Andrew Hurst
Tuesday, January 07, 2003

On a slightly related subject, I have decided that programming, or IT work in general, focusses your mind too much on the logical side of things, to the detriment of the creative side.

I used to have a great imagination. But I am 40 now (you thought 28 was old) and have realised that my imagination seems to have been on a holiday for the last few years.

I bit of exercise on http://members.ozemail.com.au/~caveman/Creative/index2.html does seem to help!

I have floated between programming, network management, web and security work over the years, so it may not be programming's fault.

Darryl Luff
Tuesday, January 07, 2003

Not me. I'm just as creative, and irrational as ever.

There's a Sunday Dilbert where he is 'babbling' at a meeting and the advise to the others is just to 'give in' to the babbling. It shows the other people at the meeting with their arms behind their heads, eyes closed faces towards the ceiling, reclining in their seats and catching up on some shut eye.

X. J. Scott
Tuesday, January 07, 2003

Reading the original post. I believe the your brain is 100% ok, and you have nothing to worry about!

However, the one thing that computers do seem cause a problem is in the area of patience.

I am less patient then I use to be. I believe that computers when they work right are just fabulous, and are totally instant.

When they don’t work right..they are terrible.

Computers are faster then the drive through at Macdonald’s.

They make us want everything to be instant!

As for making me dumber…oh man..I hope not!!!..help!!

Albert D. Kallal
Edmonton, Alberta Canada
Kallal@msn.com

Albert D. Kallal
Wednesday, January 08, 2003

Uhoh,

I spoke about this tread to my wife, and while she reassured me I was not the rambling type, she did point out that I do tend to interrupt people when they are telling a story and press for more precision or (irrelevant in her opinion) details.

We're all doomed!

Just me (Sir to you)
Wednesday, January 08, 2003

We've drifted farily far from the original post... but I'm curious.  Worried, would you mind giving an example of the sort of "critical thinking" you were expected to do on your bio exam?

Michael Eisenberg
Wednesday, January 08, 2003

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