Brain Rules

The brain is the greatest automated tool. 24 hours a day, it is creating, writing, running, observing, interpreting, and reporting tests.

With such an important machine at our disposal, it may be useful to study how it works.

The only meaningful thing I knew about how the brain affected my software testing was that it contains something known as the Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex (DLPC). Simply put, this is the part of the brain that recognizes patterns. It finds one, gets used to it, and then goes to sleep until it is “surprised” into awakening by a change in the pattern.

That’s why we miss bugs when they’re right in front of us. We’re not lazy or stupid, our brain filters out information it decides is not interesting to us. That’s why they say “fresh eyes find bugs.” Watch a newbie do your job and see what they find.

Knowing this, I can make sure to vary my attention now and then if I’m exploring. Furthermore, knowing about the DLPC’s tendencies, I wanted to know what *else* my brain is actually doing while I test. But with so much to know about brain physiology, where do I start?

Coincidence recently solved that problem for me. Knowing that I’m our lab’s head geek and study such things, our Human Resources Manager, Bev Peterson, told me about a recent lecture she attended by a guy named John Medina, who labels himself a “troubleshooter” working primarily in the biotech and pharmaceutical industries on issues related to the molecular basis of mental health. His primary appointment is at the University of Washington in the School of Medicine, but he also runs the Brain Center for Applied Learning at Seattle Pacific University just around the corner from Quardev. John has written a few books about the brain, his most recent to be published in March titled “Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School.”

She had sent me an mp3 of the lecture she attended. The lecture was about the brain, Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” and the “Jennifer Aniston neuron.” Intrigued?

I was hooked after my first minute of hearing him present his ideas. By the second minute, I wanted him to speak at our local QASIG that we host here at the lab every other month.


Once a year, I find a speaker who is not in the software testing field to talk about their work which I consider analogous to software testing. (Last year it was Seattle Police Detective Mark Hanf talking about crime scene investigation techniques [see blog]). Medina seemed like a perfect fit. He agreed to do it, and at lunch with him the other day, it was fun to tell him how similar our domains were. He studies pathologies in the brain’s programming, I study pathologies in software programming.

For example, when I talked to him about how I model software features, he said that rats, when in a maze where they know where the cheese is, will not always take the cheese, but demonstrate what can only be called “curiosity,” taking a right instead of a left where the cheese chamber is.

Researchers at MIT found that after a few successful runnings of the maze, rats will replay the maze backwards. He cited a study: which quoted Matthew Wilson, a professor in the department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences: “This backward instant replay may play a significant role in reinforcing learning,” he said. “Understanding this replay is likely to be critical in understanding how animals – and humans – learn from experience. This phenomenon may constitute a general mechanism of learning and memory.”

(After Medina read a draft of this blog, he elaborated a bit, explaining that the “curiosity” may be explained because memory fades in rats so they’ll sometimes forget pieces of the maze map. This may cause them to turn right instead of left, suggesting that they have a corruptible memory, just like us. Furthermore, he said “because of the brain’s willingness to deliberately make its owner forget details, this ultimately forces them to try new things. That this may be an adaptive, deliberate learning strategy, [quite useful in an unstable meteorological environment with creatures who would rather be comfortable than curious], blows my mind.”)

There are a lot of cool ideas like this in Medina’s book “Brain Rules” and on his site. There you may find like I did that there are many useful corollaries to help understand why we software testers do what we do – information which is nicely complemented with Medina’s ebullient and collegial personality.

For example, Brain Rule #4: “We don’t pay attention to boring things.”

In that chapter, he says: “While you are reading this paragraph, millions of sensory neurons in your brain are firing simultaneously, all carrying messages, each attempting to grab your attention. Only a few will succeed in breaking through to your awareness and the rest will be ignored. Incredibly, it is easy for you to alter this balance (for example, while still reading this sentence, can you feel where your elbows are right now?).”

There’s also Rule #12: “We are powerful and natural explorers.”

In that chapter, he says something similar to what I have said about scientific thinking (also known as “exploratory testing”): “Hypothesis testing … is the way all babies gather information. They use a series of increasingly self-corrected ideas to figure out how the world works. They actively test their environment, much as a scientist would.”

I’m all about helping testers build skill, but things like this really get me jazzed. Medina might say that my “jazzed” feeling comes from a biochemical reaction in a certain part of the brain they are now studying, but he’s the kind of guy who also admits that no one (not even those high-fallutin’ scientists at MIT) quite understands how everything in the brain works the way it does.

If that isn’t a testing corollary, I don’t know what is…

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