Do Programmers Dream of Electric Code?

Rob Lucas, a programmer, posted in the New Left Review 62 of March-April 2010 writes that,

This morning, floating through that state between sleep and consciousness in which you can become aware of your dreams as dreams immediately before waking, I realized that I was dreaming in code again.

This has been occurring on and off for the past few weeks; in fact, most times I have become aware of the content of my unconscious mind’s meanderings, it has been something abstractly connected with my job. I remember hearing the sound of the call centre in my ears as I drifted in and out of sleep when I was working there, and have heard stories from friends of doing an extra shift between going to sleep and waking—the repetitive beeps of a supermarket checkout punctuating the night.

But dreaming about your job is one thing; dreaming inside the logic of your work is quite another.

Of course it is unfortunate if one’s unconscious mind can find nothing better to do than return to mundane tasks, or if one’s senses seem stamped with the lingering impression of a day’s work. But in the kind of dream that I have been having the very movement of my mind is transformed: it has become that of my job. It is as if the repetitive thought patterns and the particular logic I employ when going about my work are becoming hardwired; are becoming the default logic that I use to think with.

This is somewhat unnerving.

What makes this particularly unnerving isn’t just that his subconscious mind goes towards something that makes up a lot of his day. That isn’t really surprising in the same way that if you tried to bury your feelings or thoughts about someone they’d eventually creep up again. But the idea of the logic that your job operates on becoming a part of your dreaming experience consistently is another thing.

I can’t believe this is something that can even be discussed but apparently it’s possible for our jobs to not only become our lives but also our dreams Now, I don’t know how many people actually have the same sort of experience that Lucas discusses here. He may be a a statistical oddity but even the very notion that it could happen seems somewhat scary to me. It’s even worse if you don’t actually like what you do and if you think about it, it sounds like Lucas enjoys his job but still finds this unnerving.

Imagine having a job (or a relationship) you don’t really like and trying to keep it secluded within your own brain as much as possible. It may not be surprising to learn that doing these sorts of things to your head means that there are going to likely be small gaps in your grasp over whatever you’re trying to control. As you tighten your grip on whatever you’re pushing down (for whatever reason) it’s quite possible it’ll slip all the more easily.

Also see, The Tarkin Effect:

Named after Grand Moff Tarkin from Star Wars IV


There’s just something insidious about having something damage you so much that you push it down and prevent it from coming out consciously. From what I’ve found (and my experiences aren’t necessarily involving work) it helps to simply come to terms with your situation and find the best way to move on. That’s obviously easier said than done and it’s going to be more or less complex given whatever set of circumstances you’re in.

Bringing it more directly back to work though, if you’re in love with your job it’s helpful to temper your love, as with any relationship. If you get too in deep with it, the job may disappoint you or fall short of your expectations. Recognizing that your love of a given project doesn’t always change its internal dynamics and properties is therefore really important.

I really love writing but I also don’t expect it to bring out my deepest and darkest sentiments that sometimes stay within me until I feel like I need to express it. Sometimes I’ll do poetry or sometimes I’ll talk to a friend or sometimes I’ll interweave my emotions within a pre-existing project (kinda like now). It’s a way for me to get out whatever I’m feeling and not try to prevent those feelings from spilling over to other projects. Because, in the end, I don’t want to end up dreaming about writing all of the time. I love writing and all but I think about it consciously enough, thanks.

And again, that’s with something I do enjoy. I can’t imagine spending my unconscious hours only thinking about working at a retail store or all of the monotony that goes on there. Compartmentalizing all of your elements in life is important and necessary but there should always be a distinction drawn between shuffling things around in healthy ways and burying things in an effort to avoid them so you don’t need to engage further.

I’ve had experience with burying feelings and so on and it’s never gone well for me. I don’t know if Lucas was doing that or if he found a solution that worked well for him. But all I can really advise those programmers or workers who dream about their jobs is to consider how they view their work. Do they take some time for themselves after their day is over? Do they bring “homework” with them when their shift is over? Do they engage in self-care when their job has them down? Or do they instead try to power through it and pretend it doesn’t matter?

This is a very interesting phenomenon and my hope is that many others don’t experience it. Whether you like your job or not, I think most of us can safely agree that thinking about it when you’re awake and asleep is just a bit too much.

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2 thoughts on “Do Programmers Dream of Electric Code?

  1. Factory workers dreaming about the production line is common. As is bar workers dreaming of pouring pints. I experienced both these dreams when I worked in those jobs. It tends to be more of a short term thing whilst in your first few weeks of the job, whilst your body and brain are tuning into the repetitive process.
    Its possibly (even) more worrying in a way that when the dreaming stops, that means its fully internalised. And once Ive stopped learning a job thats when real melancholy starts to kick in!

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