How Coding, Music, and Writing Help You to Think Big

By on July 15, 2020

Gradually, over time, I have learned that I think differently from other people. Turns out that my gran never really thought about how she could push the limits of her human performance…

What came as an even bigger shock though, was learning just how differently everyone else also thought from each other.

How programming reshapes your brain

Me? I tend to narrate nearly everything I see and think in my head. I have a constant internal monologue which mostly chats nonsense but occasionally helps me to have a really interesting new idea.

Turns out that some people don’t have a monologue like that. At all! They simply know what they think or what they’re going to do. No inner voice.

Likewise, while I might memorise a room by storing a mental snapshot of it, a friend of mine instead memorises rooms by learning the positions of the items and where they are in relation to one another. Like a set of instructions or an associative array.

He is a mathematician and a pilot. I’m a writer and a programmer. Chances are that our careers have completely reshaped our brains, the way we think, and the way we experience the world.

The interesting thing? He is a mathematician and a pilot. I’m a writer and a programmer. Chances are that our careers have completely reshaped our brains, the way we think, and the way we experience the world.

And by taking up new hobbies, you can and SHOULD do the same.

How Your Environment Shapes Your Brain

I know at least two people who read maps for fun – they actually experience those places as they follow the paths!

One of my dearest friends – who is sadly no longer with us – used to read sheet music and actually hear it as he did. That friend studied music at University and played the flute at the highest level (along with several other instruments). He was a genius. Whereas I consider myself pretty good at creative problem solving and ideation, he was just much sharper. He would come to the same conclusions but far faster. There may be a reason for this, as we’ll discover later in this post.

Musician's brain

Any traceur (free runner) is likewise familiar with the experience of “parkour vision” where they actually see potential paths to climb as they wonder through their environment.

The brain is so incredibly plastic and changeable that it is possible to remove half of the brain – an entire hemisphere in a procedure called a hemispherectomy – and to still retain the majority of cognitive function. The remaining grey matter simply adapts to take on the functions that were once distributed throughout the entire brain. Our brain regions can actually take on the roles of other areas when necessary, altering the way we process information.

Change the environment, change the organism.

The primary role of this plasticity? That is to adapt to a given environment – to ensure we are optimally prepared to thrive in the circumstances we are placed in. The brain doesn’t waste space: it won’t become cleverer or sharper than it needs to be in order to ensure our basic needs are fulfilled and we have a shot at procreation. It simply adapts to the demands we place on it.

Change the environment, change the organism.

The environment determines the brain functions and thus brain regions we use most often. This, in turn, can alter the way those areas work and can actually cause those regions to grow and change shape. This then alters the way we approach subsequent tasks.

How work changes our brains

In one study, it was found that pro athletes relied less on their visual cortices when rotating shapes mentally and more on their kinaesthetic senses as compared to non-athletes. This was actually more accurate (study).

This is one of the huge reasons that physical training is so incredibly valuable. But what other activities can we and should we engage in in order to reap the most impressive cognitive benefits?

I personally believe that much of the success I have had in life is a result of two of the things I’ve spent a large amount of time doing: programming and writing. These are two things I think that everyone should consider exploring. And here’s why.

How movement shapes the brain

Abstraction

I believe that years of writing – often in excess of 10,000 words per day – as well as having programmed since I was 6 years old, has helped me to spot opportunities and have creative insights that helped me to succeed as an online entrepreneur. For instance, I believe it helped with the creation of my most successful apps.

And there is plenty of evidence to suggest this could have been responsible.

That’s because writing is very much an activity that utilizes the frontal regions of the brain – higher-order thinking. Writing requires you to be focussed, but it also requires creativity, forward planning, organization, and logic. It also requires you to draw on a large vocabulary, and to work within the structures of grammar. It even develops a theory of mind, as you consider how your words will be interpreted by a reader.

How writing changes your brain

In one study conducted by a German research team led by Martin Lotze (study), it was found that writers used different parts of their brain depending on their experience level and the type of writing they are doing. A writer will engage their visual cortex, motor regions, and related brain regions even before they sit down to write, literally seeing what it is they want to describe.

However, more experienced writers also utilize brain regions associated with speech (Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area). This along with the hippocampus, which is a region where we store a lot of information.

The hypothesis is that they are visualizing a situation while simultaneously narrating it. It has been postulated that writers eventually begin to narrate much more of what they do, which may at least partly explain the constant chattering that goes on inside my head.

Writing and the brain

And to extrapolate, this could also provide other benefits: offering a useful way to step back and perceive a situation in a more detached manner, as seen in exercises such as CBT.

One fascinating study demonstrates this beautifully. Here, a chimpanzee called Sheba was offered two plates of food: a large one and a small one. If Sheba pointed to the smaller tray, she would be given the larger tray as a reward. While Sheba was capable of understanding the game, she couldn’t overcome her instinct to point to the larger plate. However, when the plates were replaced with numerals, she was able to successfully play the game by detaching herself from the situation.

Language provides an additional layer of abstraction on top of our physical reality.

What’s interesting, is that language provides an additional layer of abstraction on top of our physical reality. It provides a tool for manipulating more information than we can purely through visualization alone, as a single word can represent multiple things or even abstract concepts. Language can provide a form of semantic compression then, allowing us to store more information in our working memory as manipulate those ideas and think of far-flung consequences.

Interestingly, the brain regions that are utilized when processing abstract words are different from those “concrete” words like nouns. Does the word represent an item, a category of items, or an abstract concept like “time?”

This then helps us to think ahead and imagine possible outcomes. To have unique ideas. And to solve problems in creative ways.

Programming good for the brain

But programming takes this one step further. Programming adds an additional layer of abstraction, which therefore allows us to juggle even more complex ideas and concepts. When we program, we are speaking to the computer in a language that allows us to shuttle data around a series of circuits and switches in order to bring to life an app. The programming language allows us to meet the computer halfway, by talking in a language that is somewhere between English and machine code. It’s truly amazing that the human brain is capable of doing this. Using symbols extends the power of your thought exponentially.

Another study demonstrates this. Here, chimpanzees learned to use plastic tags to represent sameness and difference. Two identical items would be given a red triangle tag (for example), while two different items might be given a blue circle tag.

Only once the chimpanzees understood this symbolical representation, could they then grapple with higher-order relationships. For instance, they could understand that two pairs: cup-cup and shoe-cup were different from one another.

Philosopher Andy Clark the brain and symbols

And if you want to learn more about this, you should check out Mysteries of the Human Brain from New Scientist.

The awesome thing is that you can both write and program in your head when you’re away from a keyboard. Using your working memory to literally run the code you’re writing and test ideas, or exploring different facets of a subject you’re writing. It’s how I wrote most of this post!

My brain is my favourite IDE.

When a programmer thinks about a coding problem, they will often do so in a language called “pseudocode.” This is a kind of dumbed down version of the language that doesn’t require perfect syntax. It lets you test ideas without having to write everything perfectly or look up solutions online. It also doesn’t punish you if you forget a semi-colon.

My brain is my favourite IDE.

Is it any wonder that Steve Jobs said that everyone should learn to program?

I’ve been programming since I was 6, and for the past 10 years I’ve been writing over 10,000 words a day, five days a week. Is it any wonder that I lie awake thinking about things like the nature of thought, and new directions I could take my online business and many of my friends just don’t?

How to Reshape Your Brain

That’s not to say that any one mode of thinking is better than another. There’s plenty they’re better at than I am. But these practices have benefited me tremendously and I genuinely think that everyone could benefit from incorporating these activities into their lifestyles.

And in fact, that is actually my point. In order to have diverse and powerful brain function, we should practice using our grey matter in different ways.

And there is more than one way to do this. You don’t have to become a writer of course. Another great option, for example, is what I have previously described as “big idea meditation.” That means taking a big concept like consciousness and just thinking about it actively for a while. Likewise, you can use Cal Newport’s “productive meditation” and muse on a business problem or any other challenge you are having.

Brain and body training

Likewise, if you don’t fancy programming, then another great way to think logically in abstraction is to learn math or even theoretical physics. This is easier to do than ever thanks to apps like Brilliant. This isn’t sponsored by the way, though I would more than happily affiliate myself with that app!

(The act of learning itself has huge benefits too, as I’ve spoken about in other videos.)

Think about people you admire and the skills you could benefit from and then consider what activities could help you think that way.

If I should want to become a little quicker witted, then I might consider taking up music again like my sharp friend. It turns out this may well work. A study published in Neuropsychologica found that experienced musicians performed significantly better on both the Stroop task and Simon task. This suggests faster and more efficient processing.

Math practice

It’s worth noting that the way you practice these tasks also plays a big role. I actually did play the piano growing up, but my piano teacher liked jazz and boogie and encouraged a lot of improvisation. I shied away from site reading and preferred rote learning. I imagine the processing benefits would come more from site-reading complex sheet music quickly.

Likewise, choosing which programming language to learn could have profound effects on the way your brain is subsequently reshaped. Learning an object-oriented programming language like Java, for example, will have profoundly different effects on your brain as compared with a procedural language, such as BASIC.

Edsger W. Dijkstra is famous for saying “It is practically impossible to teach good programming to students that have had a prior exposure to BASIC: as potential programmers they are mentally mutilated beyond hope of regeneration” and “The use of COBOL cripples the mind; its teaching should, therefore, be regarded as a criminal offence.”

Brain and programming

Fun fact, my first programming language was BASIC (which in my defense is true for many people my age.) True, I had a fairly uphill struggle trying to learn object oriented languages like Java later on. But I still love BASIC, and you can find a fun defense of it here.

And did you know that individual programming styles are so idiosyncratic and unique to the individual that it is actually possible to identify a coder by the way they program? This is called “stylometry.”

If you want to learn programming stay tuned as I’ll be sharing some advice on how to get started over on my blog shortly. I know what it’s like to be overwhelmed by this task, so I think I may be able to help.


This is a channel about fitness and optimal human performance. To me, fitness should extend far beyond squats and running. If you want to be the best version of yourself, challenge your mind. Take up new practices, hobbies, and skills. And find that this can dramatically alter what you are capable, and the opportunities you see. It can even help you to cope with difficulty in new ways, and to gain a new appreciation for things around you.

I think that regular writing and programming are two practices that can hugely benefit ANYONE who wants to perform their very best. But they are just two examples. The most formidable intellect would be developed by someone who could program, write, build, play beautiful music, speak multiple languages, and perform amazing feats of physicality.

Programming

Doing some memory tests is a drop in the ocean. But taking up a practice like writing, programming, or playing music… pursuing a competitive sport, or becoming a ravenous reader… those things will transform your brain in profound ways over time.

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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