by Daragh Byrne

Overthinking, evolutionary psychology, and programming

How your mind evolved to keep you safe — and why you don’t always feel that way


My mind is my most important tool as a programmer. It’s the origin of every line of code I write. It’s the mechanism by which I understand the world (user requirements, infrastructure, team dynamics — there is literally nothing that I do as a programmer that doesn’t work through my mind).

I’ve realised more and more that, to be a competent programmer, I need to take care of my mind. It’s up to me to understand how it works, and why sometimes it doesn’t work as efficiently as I’d like.

One of the biggest problems I face when my mind is out of whack is overthinking. My mind gets busy and cluttered, and I can’t see the wood for the trees. Without mental clarity, it gets hard to solve the problem I’m working on. I’ve spent a bit of time studying the problem.

I’ve found the perspective of evolutionary psychology really useful in getting to grips with my own mind, so I’m sharing what I’ve learned here.

I first published this article over at my site, I’d love to know what you think in the comments below

As I sit here typing this, I’m contemplating my hands.

Human hands are pretty amazing. There are 27 bones in each, connected to one another by a sophisticated set of connective tissue, all operated by a carefully collaborating cohort of muscles. The dexterity of a human hand is unmatched in any other animal — a huge reason for our success as a species.

As much as I make my living with my mind, my hands are equally important. They’re letting me type these words, for example. In the past, they’ve helped me set up technical equipment for experiments or IT projects. I’ve typed a LOT of code with these hands. They also let me do a huge variety of other things that do the general job of keeping me alive (no smirking at the back). Feeding myself. Creating. Crafting tools. Forming the foundation for exercises. Driving. Communicating.

Hands are so perfect at what they do, and allow us to adapt to so many situations, it’s almost as if they were perfectly designed. In fact many people do. But this isn’t that sort of website!

The best scientific evidence of the last few hundred years clearly shows that we evolved from ancestor species. Evolution is a clean and well-tested way to explain the features of organisms found in nature. If you’d like to argue this, feel free to to skip this article, but it’s a viewpoint I’m happy to subscribe to, and have been for a looooooong time.

In evolutionary terms, a feature (or trait) of an organism that is useful to navigating its environment is an adaptation. Hands are an adaptation shared by a number of species because their utility allows them to do things other species can’t.

Human hands, with their incredibly refined range of motion and control, confer huge advantages to us not shared by other species — such as the ability to craft sophisticated tools.

Your thinking mind is an adaptation

Thinking is pretty amazing too. I love being able to think. But it wasn’t until around five years ago that I ever considered just why it is that I think.

That’s when I discovered evolutionary psychology.

According to evolutionary psychology, the mind and its subtleties are adaptations that help us to survive and thrive in our environment. Every feature of your mental world is an adaptation concerned at a basic level with keeping you alive.

The most obvious way that your mind does this is by giving you killer problem solving abilities. You have the superpower to think your way out of (and in to!) tricky situations. You can do this using the power of abstract thought that eludes most other species.

In times gone by, this might have been as simple as figuring out a safe way through a ravine to get to water or food at the other side. In more recent times, we’ve applied our ability to think in ever more sophisticated ways — for example, carrying out calculations that allow planes to fly, or figuring out how best to deploy the resources of a team in a company, or planning major construction projects, or attempting to understand the complexity of nature and the human body, or developing the software that powers our favourite websites. All of which further the existence of individuals and the species.

Thinking. Powerful stuff indeed!

The ability to think, when harnessed correctly, is a source of major benefits to humanity. But sometimes our capacity to plan, predict, calculate and create can work against us. Especially when it feels that that’s all we ever do!

The overthinking mind

Sometimes, traits that have evolved in one environment can become a little less effective when the environment changes. This is known as maladaptation. In certain circumstances, the thinking mind can behave in a maladaptive manner.

There are two features of our current world that make our mind go into overdrive:

  1. The type of threat we’re faced with is, for the most part, imaginary. Many of us live safe lives, where problems like food, shelter and water are mostly solved. Yet our mind still desires to direct its problem solving capacity at something. It preoccupies itself with our day-to-day difficulties, which are usually not life threatening, and directs the full extent of its abilities at them.
  2. We’re bombarded with way, way more information than in the past, so our thinking, problem solving mind (which LOVES information) is overstimulated. This constant stimulation means we can magnify the severity of our problems, turning everyday situations into sources of stress and anxiety. We become overwhelmed with excessive thinking. Everything becomes a problem to be solved, or goal to be achieved. This can get pretty tiring!

Thinking is just fine. Do lots of it, do it well, do it clearly.

Overthinking, on the other hand, is often a sign of stress. It’s frequently experienced as racing thoughts, worst-case scenarios, living completely inside your head, or negative self-talk (for example, I’m a terrible programmer — often manifesting as impostor syndrome).

Frequently, we’re thinking in terms of “should” or “must” or “have to”, putting enormous pressure on ourselves for things to be different from how they are now.

Which is no fun, and gets us nowhere!

Imaginary threats and information overload make us prone to overthinking. Since thinking is designed to solve problems, it can feel like EVERYTHING is a problem!

The mind, which evolved to solve the problem of how to keep us alive — to help us to ensure our safety — is doing anything but! In fact, it can feel like we’re constantly UNSAFE — even when, objectively, we’re perfectly secure!

The antidote to overthinking

Since our mind’s major goal is our survival, it has a tendency to live in the future, scanning for possible threats to our existence; or indeed to dwell in the past, picking apart hurtful memories in order to learn how not to become involved in similar situations again.

The antidote to a mind that is too consumed with thinking — with the past and the future — is to do something that connects us with the present. This gets us “out of the loop”, disengaging the thinking mind and allowing us to get a few moments of respite.

Thankfully, we have a variety of options to do this. Here are a few:

  • Connect with our breathing. A few deep breaths can have a very calming effect.
  • Engage in sensuality (for example, having a bath. Or enjoying the feel of clean sheets. Or the feel of the sun on your skin. Use your imagination).
  • Take the time to really, really listen to a piece of music. Become overwhelmed by it to the point that the mind calms down.
  • Get into nature. Hug a tree, or take a walk in the park, or the wilderness. Gaze at the night sky and ponder the vastness of the universe.
  • Do something creative. Access a different part of your brain.
  • Dance, exercise, yoga — all excellent ways to connect with the body rather than the mind.
  • My favourite way to connect with the present moment: meditation! Learning meditation is teaching yourself the skill of connecting with the present. Very useful when your mind is feeling unmanageable!

To summarise:

  • Your ability to think evolved to keep you safe and alive;
  • Your mind does this by thinking a lot about the past and the future;
  • It’s possible for the mind to get into a state where it’s thinking TOO MUCH about the past and the future — this can be uncomfortable or downright unpleasant;
  • Choosing to connect with the present moment can act as an antidote to overthinking. This can take practice, but there are a number of options, including meditation.

If you visit my site, and sign up for my list, I’ll send you four things completely free:

  1. The Ultimate Guide to Meditation for Programmers
  2. The Coding Burnout Checklist.
  3. The Impostor Syndrome Flashcard
  4. Three guided audio meditations