This is Your Brain on <Insert Tool Here>

I’d like to spend a little time today talking about the power that tools, techniques, and languages have on our brains.

There seems to be fairly wide acceptance for the theory that language and literacy affect the structure and function of our brains. I think the lessons learned there can be applied to programming languages, too.

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First, a couple simple facts.

There has been research that indicates that illiteracy may affect the way people think and deal with emotions. And if the concepts aren’t in the language you do have, you may never be able to grasp them.

What do you call someone who speaks three languages? A polyglot. What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bi-lingual. What do you call someone who speaks one language? American.

There is a small tribe of people in Latin America called the Piraha (our word, not theirs) who, like the trolls in Terry Pratchett’s world, do not have distinct words for numbers above 3. The people studying them have found that they actually appear to be innumerate—lacking the ability to comprehend numbers and numerical concepts. Their lack of exposure to numbers at an early age seems to leave them incapable of performing quantitative tasks, even ones as simple as visually comparing two piles of stones. It’s not because their brains are different than ours at birth, and children of the tribe are able to pick up math while the adults just can’t make it work.

The Piraha are the famous curio in the study how language affects the brain instead of vice versa. But how could we tell if there are such hidden mines in our own languages? Are we missing something big? If we are, how could we know?

Of course, I wanted to talk about computer languages specifically, not a topic that could, unchecked, quickly descend into Platonic philosophy or metaphysics. But I think that the above applies. Computer languages are tools in your arsenal. But they also affect how you think.

A language that doesn’t affect the way you think about programming is not worth knowing. — Alan Perlis

We have to consider that we, too, may be like the Piraha in this way. Our choice of programming language isn’t likely to make us completely incapable of grasping a concept if we try hard enough, because we learned them at a later age than regular speech. But it’s possible we’re wandering along in the dark without knowing it.

It’s too easy to sink into the belief that you are working among the programmers’ Chosen Ones, on the True Path, and that what you are doing is right (or even advisable). This kind of smug feeling security is dangerous to anyone who aspires to really and truly be a good developer.

And when you’re using a language, or framework, or practice that you’re content with, when you’re not actively looking for ways to expand your knowledge, you may be surrounded by fences you never knew were there.

Allow me to say that I eat my own dogfood. I don’t write these lofty articles about stuff I’ve never experienced so I can sound thoughtful and deep. I was happy with PHP for a long time, and there were times I defended its quality as a language. I grew a lot as a PHP developer, of course, but at each iteration I was happy with what I was doing then. Only in retrospect did my older habits take on the awful taste they now have.

PHP wasn’t my only exposure to programming languages, but it seemed to be superior to what I saw in my exposure to Java and PERL. I didn’t like Java at all because it felt like training wheels you couldn’t take off, but it did teach me a lot about object-oriented programming concepts. Once I learned Ruby, though, I realized what I’d been missing all this time. And it’s improved my PHP work, too, because that’s what I do all day.

Luckily I was open to change, or I wouldn’t be here writing this, and a lot of the wonderful things that have happened in my life lately never would have occurred. I think even the programming experiences I haven’t liked have taught me things. There’s value in learning what not to do. There’s also value in thinking “I won’t like this at all” or “This is stupid” and doing it anyway, and finding out that you were wrong.


  1. says:

    slash7 with Amy Hoy » Blog Archive » This is Your Brain on <Insert Tool Here>


    slash7 with Amy Hoy » Blog Archive » This is Your Brain on <Insert Tool Here>

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