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Aha! Experiences - Elf M. Sternberg
Aha! Experiences
The other day I was talking to a friend of mine about programming, and one of the things he mentioned was that reading Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programming, also known as "The Wizard Book," was an exercise in "The Aha! Experience."

Probably one of the odder disappointments in my life is that I almost never have Aha! experiences. I'm a competent programmer and can follow just about any theory of computation where it leads right down to the end. When I do the exercises at the end of each chapter, I can usually do each one, even the ones that intend to lead you into the next chapter via insight, but that insight rarely comes with that "burst of illumination." Sometimes, but far less often than I think happens with other people.

It seems to me that my life is conducted almost entirely out of bricolage, which Merriam Webster defines as a term imported from the French meaning "construction (as of a sculpture or a structure of ideas) achieved by using whatever comes to hand; also: something constructed in this way." When I'm studying a new technique or trying to come up with something different, I just keep building things until something starts working. I barely notice when that happens, though: instead, the technique is usually just something I needed to achieve a goal. It isn't until later (sometimes much later) that I realize something like, "Oh, that's recursion." (Or closures[?], or parallelism, or currying[?]). "That's odd. When did I get comfortable with that?" I usually can't pinpoint it: I didn't have an "aha" experience. Somewhere in the back of my brain this difficult and theoretical idea just started working. I'm often pleased to realize that I've been doing for some time what is considered difficult by programmers, but that "bolt of insight" experience that others seems to have continues to elude me.

Current Mood: thoughtful thoughtful

5 comments or Leave a comment
sirfox From: sirfox Date: May 29th, 2007 03:12 pm (UTC) (Link)
I forget where i've heard it, but it's been borne out in my own labwork more than once...

"The most important words in science are not 'Eureka! i've found it!' but instead 'huh... well *that's* odd...'"
(Deleted comment)
norincraft From: norincraft Date: May 30th, 2007 07:21 pm (UTC) (Link)
... and one of the scarrier pharses is:

Hey, watch this!
bikerwalla From: bikerwalla Date: May 29th, 2007 04:40 pm (UTC) (Link)

stretching the metaphor

You're well-grounded. All your various links to the body of knowledge keep the thoughts flowing smoothly, without the giant building of unused potential that is relieved with a giant spark.
acelightning From: acelightning Date: May 29th, 2007 09:04 pm (UTC) (Link)
I've been a bricoleuse all my life, although I usually describe it as "creative misuse of hardware". I do also apply it to intellectual constructs (though I'm not a programmer). Generally, as you describe, I just keep building things until something works... or until it works the way I want it to. And I do sometimes have that retroactive feeling of "Wow... I didn't know I knew how to do that!" I have also had "Aha!" experiences in the classic sense. But I think it's part of the "curse of bright people" that I don't have nearly as many of those "Aha!" moments as I'd like to. They're quite enjoyable - sort of an "orgasm of the mind" - but when you just naturally understand stuff as you go along, that sudden leap of understanding doesn't happen very often.

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