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The Abstraction Distraction

How we humans chunk information is both our superpower and our Kryptonite.

In Computer Science, four cornerstone principles comprise the concept of computational thinking: abstraction, decomposition, algorithms, and pattern recognition. By considering these principles in the abstract (pun intended), we can learn much about our ability to learn, grow, and ultimately make better life decisions.

Spiral shape made with light in  a long exposures photograph by Frank Cone.
Photo by Frank Cone:

Human psychology is a deep and murky puddle shrouded in scholarly language and often impenetrable to us mere mortals. We could sidestep a lot of pain if the human being came with an easy-to-digest user guide. In the absence of an easy reader-mind manual, let’s use some analogies to paint a picture of how we operate using that good old simple-to-understand subject of computer science! - Really, hang in there…

Abstraction and the ability to learn something.

Our ability to learn complex tasks is nothing short of remarkable. Everything we do, say, create, think and feel comprises thousands of tiny details and actions that, if we had to think about them in successive order, our minds would explode in our skull cavities with a dull thud. The human brain, while utterly brilliant, really sucks at doing more than a few things at a time. This is why people of a certain age who maybe look a little like me can’t text and walk without going to half-power on both tasks.

To get around this thorny issue and build a complex modern society, humans developed the capacity to chunk many small actions and abstract them into bigger ones. For example, driving a car. This is an enormously complicated task that comprises hundreds of individual tasks. Changing gear alone is a monumental task for the learner driver:

  1. Move your hand from the steering wheel.

  2. Simultaneously, start to push your right foot down on the clutch.

  3. At the same time, lift your left foot off the accelerator.

  4. Now, making contact with the gear shift, move it to the appropriate next gear (a whole other decision tree is needed here in gear selection based on contextual information).

  5. Lift the clutch with your right foot smoothly while…

  6. Pressing with your left foot an appropriate amount of acceleration (based on a whole other decision tree of contextual information).

It is a label we give a set of complex tasks bundled into one thought, feeling or action.

Algorithms and steps to follow to master a task.

After a while and some ground gear teeth, we come to call this action “Changing Gear”. In a nutshell, that is abstraction. It is a label we give a set of complex tasks bundled into one thought, feeling or action. Incidentally, the order in which the tasks are carried out is what you would call an algorithm. Order is really important for the correct outcome.

A chef starts by following a recipe closely, measuring ingredients, and timing everything carefully. But over time, they internalise the techniques and flavour combinations as abstractions and start improvising and riffing on recipes; suddenly, their food is a creative expression.

As a writer, you begin by learning the basics of grammar and syntax, but over time, and by abstraction, you develop a "feel" for what sounds right and flows well. You can trust your instincts and play with language in new and unexpected ways. As you develop mastery of a task, you stack abstractions of actions into abstractions of abstractions and label them as being a chef, a writer, a guitarist, an accountant, or a teacher. Whether we are any good at these tasks is subject to the quality of the algorithms that make up the abstractions that make the whole.

Our opinions, desires, fears, phobias, likes, dislikes, loves, hates, and aspirations are all part of the utterly unique, one-of-a-kind being that is you.

Not just the things we do but also how we feel and what we think and say are subject to abstraction. From birth, we abstract algorithms and write the programs of who we are. Our opinions, desires, fears, phobias, likes, dislikes, loves, hates, and aspirations are all part of the utterly unique, one-of-a-kind being that is you.

People with high emotional intelligence can abstract their emotions in a way that allows them to respond to situations more calmly and rationally. They're able to identify the underlying causes of their emotions, and they can separate the emotion from the situation. This allows them to respond more constructively and effectively. It's like they have a mental "if-then" statement that helps them navigate challenging situations. It would be nice to be one of those people. The other side to this coin is where the abstraction of emotional information has led to outcomes that are not working for you. Luckily, we have a way of dealing with that, too.

...unpacking your abstractions is vital in tracking down the bugs in your system and reprogramming your emotional response to a stimulus.

Decomposition and the ability to unlearn/relearn something.

Decomposition in computer science is about breaking down a complex problem or system into smaller, manageable, and easier-to-understand parts. If an aspect of your life isn’t serving you, the root causes are wrapped in a layer of abstraction in one or more of your behaviours or emotional responses. Not to stretch an analogy to the breaking point, but unpacking your abstractions is vital in tracking down the bugs in your system and reprogramming your emotional response to a stimulus. While the base programming may be so ingrained that the response behaviour still presents itself, you will have brought awareness to a root cause and can mitigate its consequences in your life. This is how you become conscious of your actions.

Someone might abstract their tendency to procrastinate as a "lack of motivation," but the real issue could be a coping mechanism for avoiding something they're afraid of or uncomfortable with. Deconstructing that abstraction can be vital to breaking the habit and developing healthier ways of dealing with the underlying issues. It's like untangling a knot to get to the root of the problem. Breaking a problem into its constituent parts is the only way to find a solution as often, at a higher level of abstraction, the issue is masked and can easily be mistaken for someone else’s fault. A dangerous trap that robs you of the liberation of responsibility.

Pattern recognition and the root of our superpower.

Unconscious abstraction is how we build habits. Conscious abstraction is how we build skills and course-correct habits that just don’t work for us. Pattern recognition is the root of our superpower as humans. It is crucial in our ability to learn, adapt, and make informed decisions to make powerful changes at the personal or global level.

Pattern recognition is a fundamental principle in both computer science and human cognition. In computer science, algorithms are designed to process patterns in data, enabling machines to perform tasks from image recognition to natural language processing. Similarly, pattern recognition is the key to our success in human learning and emotional intelligence. We are wired to recognise patterns from the moment we are born. Babies learn their parents' faces, the rhythm of their language, and the patterns of daily life. This innate ability to identify and internalise patterns is what allows us to learn and adapt to the world around us. Our coping mechanisms form habits that our unconscious mind believes are protecting us.

In learning new skills, pattern recognition enables us to identify the underlying structures and connections within a subject and connect them all together as abstractions that allow us to auto-pilot complex actions into single-thought instructions. Pattern recognition also plays a crucial role in unlearning and relearning behaviours that are not serving us. Like in computer science, where algorithms can be adjusted to adapt to changing data, humans can modify their behaviours by recognising and reevaluating patterns that lead to undesirable outcomes, decomposing the offending abstraction and re-writing the algorithm to serve the best outcome in our lives. is the hard that makes it good.

Through the Looking Glass

Self-reflection is one of the hardest and most rewarding things we can undertake. It is not easy, and it wouldn’t be worthwhile if it were. It is my own belief that it is

the hard that makes it good. Nothing worthwhile comes without personal effort and commitment; life is often a test of your resolve. From personal experience, I have come to believe that it is worth the struggle. If your habits don’t serve you in your work, your relationships or in general life, please talk to someone and find help. A friend, a stranger, a therapist, even a compassionate AI. Sometimes, finding your own self-reflection takes the lens of another.

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