Nerd Psychology


At the beginning of this month I was invited to give a keynote at the MadExpo conference opposite Jeff Prosise, who gave an amazing Thursday keynote address.  This was heady stuff and more due to the subject matter I proposed, “What Recent Breakthroughs in Nerd Psychology Can Teach Us About Software Development”, than my abilities as a public speaker.

The keynote attempted to address several intractable problems in software development using current psychological and neurological research:

    1. Why hasn’t the proliferation of software frameworks and tools made software development go any faster?
    2. Why does the obsolete technology we abandoned five years ago always eventually reappear as something new and trendy?
    3. Why do developers find it impossible to predict how long a task will take until it is completed?
    4. How much should a developer be paid for a mythical-man-month of work?
    5. What is this fear of “coupling” that all software architects seem to exhibit?

In the process, I also tried to solve another set of interesting problems:

    • Whether the brain can be hacked
    • The secret of the Mona Lisa’s smile
    • Why multi-tasking is a myth
    • Why nerds like puns
    • Why the Turing Test is a red herring

The crux of the talk revolved around what is coming to be known as the Autistic Spectrum of Disorders, which includes: Autism, Asperger Syndrome and PDD-NOS (a catch all for disorders that do not meet the requirements for Asperger but approaches it).

Various research has connected these disorders with what is commonly known as “the nerd”.  The two papers I cited in the talk were Ioan James’s Autism and Mathematical Talent and Nicholas Putnam’s  Revenge or tragedy: Do nerds suffer from a mild pervasive developmental disorder? which was published in Adolescent psychiatry: Developmental and clinical studies, Vol. 17.

Asperger Syndrome and PDD-NOS are interesting here for the qualities these disorders share with what we would think of as a high functioning software developer.  Though a bit laudatory, here is a quote from the pediatrician Hans Asperger on the disorder that bears his name:

It seems that for success in science or art a dash of autism is essential. For success the necessary ingredient may be an ability to turn away from the everyday world, from the simple practical, an ability to rethink a subject with originality so as to create in new untrodden ways …

Research on a neurological structure called mirror neurons, which were discovered in the late 80’s, are now believed to be associated with language acquisition and social aptitude.  Some researchers identify a flaw in the functioning of mirror neurons with disorders like autism.  If this is true, then it provides the clue as to why some people will turn away from social interactions and, in turn, have a large reservoir of concentration and obsessiveness which are turned to other, more mechanical, pursuits.

Pulling this talk together was deeply fascinating and I am indebted to my wife Tamara, a therapist as well as a highly accomplished hypno-therapist, for her help.

I also drew on several popular books for additional material.  They are all very readable and fascinating:

The Tell-Tale Brain – V. S. Ramachandran

Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals About Our Everyday Perceptions — Stephen L. Macknik, Susana Martinez-Conde, Sandra Blakeslee

NurtureShock: New Thinking about Children – Po Bronson, Ashley Merryman

The Invisible Gorilla — Christopher Chabris, Daniel Simons

How We Decide – Johah Lehrer

The Language Instinct – Steven Pinker

… and while not directly used in this talk, a clear inspiration for myself and the other authors in this brief bibliography is the book which inaugurated the “everything you know is wrong” genre of non-fiction books:

Freakonomics – Steven D. Levitt, Stephen J. Dubner

The slides for this talk (which includes the Nerd-Geek-Dork Venn Diagram by Matthew Mason) can be found on my skydrive.

[For reference: a quick indicator of whether you are a nerd or a geek is this: if you can pull of horn-rimmed glasses, you are a geek.  if you cannot pull off sunglasses, you are a nerd.  I personally have trouble with sunglasses but, for some reason, keep trying.]

One thought on “Nerd Psychology”

  1. 🙂 Cool to find a quote of Asperger in your blog. I'm a happy host to Tourette/Tick/Autism or whatever happens in my brain for as long as I can think. Your wife surely has a lot of fun 🙂 For me it means buzzing improvised melodies all the day long. Loosing the ability to talk when coding for too long and visualizing more than I should. Code smells and non-elegant wordly thingies hurt physically somehow, so it's easy to write beautiful code and craft beautiful wordly thingies. Hehehe… I needed about 26 years of my now 38 years to fully appreciate the inner workings of my brain. Dunno, it's quite lovely and funny the brain as it is.
    Best regards,

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