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What We Do With a Lack of Information

Published 12/18/2019

What exactly does it mean to forget?

In today's episode we're talking about perspective. Most of what we experience in our day-to-day will eventually be forgotten and there isn't a clear definition of what it means to remember or forget things.

We'll dig into the detail of moments that we forget and those details that cause memories to stick. Understanding how we can make more memorable decisions when designing our code structure and what we can do when we have a lack of code decision information.

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Transcript (Generated by OpenAI Whisper)
And life for you to take a moment and pause. If you can't pause then come back to this podcast when you have a moment to truly truly think about this fact. You have forgotten almost everything that you have experienced. Now what exactly does this mean to us as humans? And how is it that we can still operate and have a sense of self-identity? And is it true that we've actually forgotten these things or are we just unable to recall them? My name is Jonathan Cutrell, you're listening to Developer Tea and my goal on the show is to help driven developers find clarity, perspective and purpose in their careers. And today's episode is about perspective. And you have the perspective that most of what you experience you will forget. Then it changes the way you think about the minutia of your day. But we should dig in a little bit and understand a little bit more about what our minds do with the absence of information. We're not talking about having bad information, having incorrect information given to us. And we're also not talking about having only a little bit of information. We're talking about a total absence. So what exactly does it mean to forget? It's hard to totally describe this because the science around the subject is not completely clear. What exactly constitutes a memory and what exactly constitutes forgetting? If we have a memory that we can't access but somehow it's still available in our minds, maybe we do something in the future that triggers our ability to access that memory, then did we actually forget it? From a philosophical level, you might be able to argue that you have kind of two minds running. One is the recording mind. Or you never forget anything because your mind experienced it and it records everything. This is obviously theoretical and probably not accurate to what's actually happening at a physical level, but in any case, the other mind that we have is the accessing mind. Intuitively, we've experienced this phenomenon where we feel like we've forgotten something and then we experience something in our day-to-day lives that triggers a memory. It's a memory that we don't hold readily available necessarily, but yet it's there. And we experience it as if we had never lost it. So all of this discussion is to establish the idea that there's not a really clear definition of what it means to remember or forget something. But what we do know, and this is based on plenty of studies around the subject of memory, is that we tend to forget things at an exponential level, but that we also retain a small amount of information for a very long time. And so while we're talking about the absence of information on this episode, what this kind of suggests is that we have these little landmark moments in our lives, but a lot of the detail around those moments will be lost. It's fuzzy memories, even for the sharpest minds. And so if you remember back to your childhood or you remember even a few weeks ago, the procedural things that you did during a given day, it's very likely that you're going to remember incorrectly. And we're going to talk about that remembering incorrectly part in just a few minutes. But thinking back over your life, there's also times where you have very high definition memories. And what exactly causes this, again, is not totally clear, but we do know that some things cause us to remember things better than others. For example, when we experience things in a story format, when example of this is things like your favorite movie, you remember the plot of your favorite movie better than you might remember the plot of a given day that you yourself experienced. Similarly, memories of kind of stand out moments, individual milestone moments tend to be more memorable than repeated experiences. So if you like I took a regular vacation to the same place when you were younger, it's very hard to remember particular moments based on a given year. In other words, you might have experienced that in the first year that you went or in the fifth year that you went to that particular place. It's hard to disambiguate. But if you only experience something once, the memory around that event can be much clearer. And especially if this is out of the norm. And there's pretty strong theories as to why this is the case. When we experience something once, our brain has to kind of work a little bit harder to wrap around that new experience. But if we experience it multiple times, our brain can kind of discard information that it remembers, whether implicitly or explicitly from the previous experiences. Recently on this episode, we talked about in a recent episode of Developer Tea, we talked about how you can get in your car and end up driving to work without ever really even thinking about where you're going. Part of the reason this is possible is because your brain has compressed down all of the irrelevant information and created these kind of easy to follow rules, low energy. Your brain, as we've said on so many episodes before, is trying to be as lazy as possible. So what do we do when we have a lack of information? For example, about our past. And we don't know exactly what happened. This is obviously relevant for our work as developers because it's very easy to forget why we made certain decisions. We may remember the rules that led us to make those decisions, but if we had to reconstruct every single small decision that we made, that would be essentially the same work as building the software in the first place. So what do we do in the face of a lack of information? We're going to talk about that right after we talk about today's sponsor, GiveWell. And speaking of a lack of information, GiveWell is providing you information that you otherwise wouldn't have. Because giving is hard. When you donate, it's hard to know what a charity can actually accomplish with your money because of this lack of information. So imagine that you want to help children. You found two trustworthy organizations and all the information that you have tells you that they both are good at what they do, but they run totally different programs. One can save a child's life for every $300,000 donated, while the other can save a child's life for every $3,000 donated. If you could tell the difference, you probably donate to the one that was 100 times better at saving children's lives. And that's what GiveWell does. They go and do the work to find this information. They spend 20,000 hours a year researching which charities can do the most with your money. And then they turn around and share this information freely to you. And of course, on top of the information being free, GiveWell doesn't take a cut of your donation either. Donors like you can have a big impact because GiveWell recommends charities that work to prevent children from dying of cheaply preventable disease and help people in dire poverty. You can learn how much good your donation could do by visiting givewell.org slash Developer Tea. Their recommendations are free for anyone to use and GiveWell doesn't take any cut of your donation. First time donors will have their donation matched up to $1,000 if you donate through GiveWell.org slash Developer Tea. That seems like a really good return for that investment. Go and check it out. GiveWell.org slash Developer Tea. Thank you again to GiveWell for sponsoring today's episode. So what do we do when we have a lack of information? And this isn't just about memory, by the way. This is about available information. Because that information is available because of our memory, but sometimes information is gone because the record of that information doesn't exist. For example, we don't have information about all of the things that have failed. We don't have information about all of the things that were never attempted. We also don't have a reliable way to measure the role of randomness in the vast majority of things that we experience. We can use statistics to try to understand our experiences and try to understand the available information, but oftentimes statistics don't do enough. There is a lack of information. And the lack of information is daunting larger than the availability of information. So what do we do in this, in the face of that, both at the kind of the grand scale, but perhaps more importantly to your career at the smaller scale, at the individual scale? Well, the simple answer is we try to make sense. We try to make sense of the world around us. We try to make sense of our memories of the few things that we do have available. And we try to take the things that we have experienced or the things that we remember or we think we remember. And we expand on those things. You can think of these things as kind of surface area. And you can stack things on that surface area. And eventually, when you stack enough things, you start to have a cohesive picture, a narrative, something that you can understand because it makes sense. But the vast majority of things that we make sense out of might make sense from a reasonable standpoint, a reasonableness test would pass, but they're inaccurate. For example, let's say that you split your time between working at home and working in a co-working space. And if I were to ask you what you did last Wednesday and you don't have a record of it, you might not remember exactly where you were. Perhaps you were at the co-working space or perhaps you were at home. And either one of those answers is believable. It's reasonable. Either one makes sense. And when something makes even the slightest bit more sense to us than something else, we are more likely to attach ourselves to the thing that makes more sense. And sometimes reality makes less sense than theory. This certainly isn't always true, and it's probably better that we look for things that make sense rather than looking for things that don't or biasing towards things that make less sense that are not reasonable, but it's not always correct. The problem is that our brains can't really tell the difference between correctness and sensibility. And of course, our brains can't really tell the difference between a simulation or a planted memory and a true memory. We talked about this on the show before. I highly recommend that you do a little bit of research on this because it sounds kind of strange like an oddball theory at first, but it's absolutely the case that we remember doing things that we didn't actually do. Perhaps we heard a story about those things being done by another person. And we heard it in detail or often enough that we somehow adopted that memory for ourselves as if we had experienced it. So of course, this concept goes well beyond the scope of this episode, but what do we do in the absence of information? And the answer is we try to make sense. We try to make sense where things don't make sense. And of course, when we have an absence of information, things don't really make sense, because there's a missing piece of the puzzle. There's a gap between what we know and what we're seeing in front of us. Another takeaway from this concept that we try to make sense of the world is that we often have a bias of thinking about things that are prevalent. In other words, the things that we see on a regular basis, we believe are the only things that there are. Because our active living experience is highly detailed, it's hard to believe the assertion that we made at the very beginning of this episode, for example. We've lost so many memories, but the reason it's hard to believe is because they're lost. The absence of that information doesn't make itself known. It's hard to realize. It's hard to gather together the sensibility of having lost so much of our memories. This will happen in your code bases as well. Once you made a bad decision in your code base at some point, and you moved on and then you come back to that decision, and because you have the frame of reference that you are an intentional programmer, for example, or maybe the code was written by someone that you highly respect or you admire, and you believe that they are an intentional programmer, then you look at this piece of code and you assume this must exist in this form for a reason. But the reason that you fill in the blank with is likely to be in line with your preconceptions about a given person. This piece of code on the flip side may have been written by a junior engineer, and you might believe that the reason it's theirs is because of their lack of experience, but they may have had a totally legitimate reason to put that line of code in place. Overall, the lack of information, when we encounter a lack of information, we act in somewhat counterintuitive or peculiar ways. We often don't see the lack of information because we fill in the blanks and we try to make sense out of the world. Brains are since making machines, but we also may miss a lack of information because the evidence of the lack of information is hard to gather, it's hard to see what we're missing. For this reason, it might make sense, especially when you're making big decisions or when you have a team meeting where you're planning something, then you ask this question explicitly. What lack of information may be present that we're not realizing? There's almost always an answer to this question, very few times, should you walk away from the table when you ask this question with nothing? Because very often, there will be a lack of information. At the very least, you can't predict, for example, when someone's going to get sick. So ask yourself this question both at the team level, but also individually, especially when you experience something like interpersonal conflict. What lack of information am I working from? What I feel in the blanks about this person, these kinds of ways of thinking are going to, first of all, challenge your assumptions about the world around you, but they're also going to require that you think about your own confidence levels through a different frame. Thank you so much for listening to today's episode. Thank you again to give well for sponsoring today's episode of Developer Tea. Head over to givewell.org slash Developer Tea. And you can get your donation matched up to a thousand dollars. Remember, give well doesn't take a cut of your donation. And they have done the research to find the most effective charity. So your dollar is going to go a long way by giving through give well. Thank you so much for listening. Thank you again to today's producer, Sarah Jackson. My name is Jonathan Cutrell. And until next time, enjoy your tea.