Monday, July 30, 2007

Differences in human parallel processing

Intel quad-core processor I feel like I spend a lot of my time looking at and learning about the world, in some ways more of a passive observer rather than an active participant. Much of the time I feel like reality is so complex I ought to make sure I understand it properly before formulating my ideas about, making comments or taking action. But there are so many issues and so many perspectives, and perspectives of perspectives, from which you could view each issue it doesn't just seem overwhelming; it is overwhelming. How is it that we as humans should make sense of the world, make sensible conclusions in less than a lifetime, and so be active participants?

First, we can specialise ourselves to a high degree and try to be experts in our own little niche. Then we can make confident assertions and verify them in the little corner of science we occupy. But what if it is affected by some thing outside our little corner? What happens if we are like Chanakya's disciple and truly missing the holiday festival by focusing exclusively on our jug of water we're carrying and which we must not spill?

Or we can take a more generalist approach – try to bring relevant threads from other niches into our thought process and not miss the greater picture (and stay aware of how the average person is thinking on your topic too). But then we can get lost in trying to draw in too many threads? And the conclusions we draw may just lack that compelling simplicity or directness of a conclusion made by the specialist expert.

I guess the most sensible road lies somewhere between these two. I suspect it also lies in getting to understanding our own personal abilities and proclivities...

Ada Lovelace According to some popular psychology (eg. Helen Fisher) women in general are better at being "web thinkers", thinking holistically about an idea, whereas men tend to be better at thinking step by step and ignoring extraneous influences to hone in on the specific problem. While I have no wish to force gender roles on to anyone and without seriously evaluating the research in the field, I can certainly come up with anecdotal evidence to support this. I apologise in advance that I am trying to suggest a general trend based purely on my own experience, but given there is no objective method in neuroscience to identify the thought processes taking place in someone's brain, I'll try to conclude something from this highly self-biased, subjective method anyway.

Working as a software engineer I notice my male colleagues find it far easier than me (and my female colleagues, I'd venture to say) to focus intently on some very esoteric point of software engineering philosophy or practice, work through it in their minds and come out objectively with the most logical and optimal conclusion on the topic. I'm highlighting the thinking process here, not the process of coming out with the more optimal/sensible conclusion, because often there is more than one sensible conclusion and likely more than one road to get to it. Personally, I firstly find it particularly hard to ignore seemingly extraneous information, and secondly struggle to keep track of where I am in the sequence of logical (often nested) steps it'll take me to come out with the optimal conclusion/answer/solution.

For example, recently there was a discussion about the best way to manage the change control of our software. For those not involved in software development, put simply, "change control" or "code management" is an important practice to ensure that the development of software can happen with contributions being constantly made by many people to the same repository of source code without being negatively affected by each other's changes or "breaking the build" (making the current software code unable to be compiled into a runnable application or component). This may already seem like a very esoteric topic to some, but I've come to realise that there is no limit to the level of detail or specificity of subtopics we could discuss inside this topic!

For the past few months there have been many inputs into the discussion about what is the best way to perform merges, maintain branches, resolve conflicts, and generally manage the code within our company workflow and using our chosen change control tool. To me, almost all of the approaches are valid and each has advantages and disadvantages. And with each advantage or disadvantage comes nested sets of disadvantages and advantages. When it comes to trying to decide which approach we should take as a company I feel like the endless nesting of advantages and disadvantages are overwhelming to the point where trying to objectively predict which approach will be optimal is just not worth the effort (being nearly impossible). And I have this constant niggling feeling when I am faced with such a chess-like problem (i.e. the exponential problem of needing to imagine all the possible moves ten steps ahead)... I have this feeling that there is some really obvious solution available, perhaps by using lateral thinking, which I'll miss if I bury myself too deep in thinking about this problem via sequential/nested logic alone... And there are other feelings... I think about the real reason for my job -- to improve health care -- and the current preoccupation seems so obscure... And I think about my place in the great cosmos... And I get fascinated with the personalities of the people I'm talking with and how it leads to their ideas... In short, my mind finds it hard to deal with the insanely specific and finds it hard to cast off the extraneous information.

On the other hand, my mind seems to be capable of making swift connections between parallel streams of thought (at any given level of complexity). If I am considering one approach to the code management and evaluating it, I'm constantly comparing it to all the other parallel approaches, which is useful for comparison even if not useful for focusing on the current approach. This is actually very much like what Edward de Bono coined "lateral thinking", consciously leaving our minds open to alternate parallel paths. It's ironic that de Bono, a male of the species, described lateral thinking (in quite precise detail) as a conscious process, whereas I suspect that many people, particularly women, perform it quite unconsciously. In the case of our code management my preference (after some exploration of the topic and observing others' deeper exploration of the topic) would be to try each approach for a short time and evaluate which is the best by hindsight experience (we are gradually doing this anyway). For others in the company, all male, I think the philosophical discussion is much more fascinating and they truly believe that they will arrive at the most optimal approach by merely thinking about it in this deeply-and-narrowly-focused way. And they may well do! (watch this space)

Is it really the case that my personal experience here is really something that distinguishes the majority of women from the majority of men? The great thing about a blog is I can invite you to comment...

If it is, then, apart from any thing else, it means men can gain a lot and learn a lot from women; similarly, women can gain a lot and learn a lot from men. As a woman the second point is more exciting for me, but I suspect the good middle road to take is to allow yourself to fluctuate between thinking in a very narrow and focused manner – let's call it "depth-first thinking" (I think some would call it logical, but I don't believe the way of thinking I'm contrasting it with is illogical) and a multi-lateral manner of thinking or "web thinking" – I'll call it "breadth-first thinking". And the only way to do that is to learn to do it both ways!

In the end this is not necessarily about gender differences. It could be about differences in the dominance of particular sides or parts of the brain or differences in societal expectations/reinforced stereotypes. The point is that there really do appear to be two different ways of thinking.

The majority of scientific fields currently demand the depth-first thinking and so all the "useful subjects" at school and non-creative university courses tend to get students to cultivate this way. Is it possible that a formerly male-driven world (and in some parts still male-driven and male-centric) is still missing out on valuable ideas and valuable streams of discussion because the breadth-first thinking, more common in females, is undervalued and therefore suppressed or neglected in people? And please note, I'm not talking about magic or mystical thinking, just a more holistic, all-encompassing, logical way of thinking. (In this vein, I was fascinated to hear a speech by Ken Robinson, at TED conference in February 2006, in which he suggests schools are "educating people out of their creativity" and that there should be more focus on nurturing creative ways of thinking in schools, particularly in kids who seem more naturally inclined toward this way of thinking.)

By the same token, I can see that there are applications to which breadth-first thinking is not so well suited. This is best summed up by the observation made in the study of parallel computing that not all algorithms can be parallelised (eg. one woman can make a baby in nine months, but nine women can't make a baby in one month). Some topics will always require thinking deeply and narrowly in pure logical progression.

And I know I probably didn't come to the most optimal conclusion via pure logical progression here, but please, what are your thoughts on this anyway?

Quad-core image thanks to Ada Lovelace image thanks to the USA Library of Congress.
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Anonymous jair said...

Told you this post was too info-dense for people to comment on *grin*

August 29, 2007 12:30 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

On the question of how "we as humans should make sense of the world, make sensible conclusions in less than a lifetime, and so be active participants?" I suggest that undertaking intense analysis of how you should be thinking/acting/behaving is likely to lessen, rather than increase, your chances of becoming an active participant. The phrase "analysis paralysis" springs to mind.

On the issue of women preferring breadth-first searches to depth-first, I don't generally find it difficult to switch between the two approaches in evaluating possible solutions to abstract problems. Unfortunately this logical process tends to break down very quickly once some emotional content comes into the picture. At that point my tendency is to focus tightly (obsess?). Such is life for this (male) human. Is this a gender-specific tendency? I have no idea.

October 05, 2007 12:17 pm  

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