“You should imagine bindings as tentacles rather than boxes. They do not contain values; they grasp them — two bindings can refer to the same value.”
— Marijn Habernecker
An analogy like this falls into the category of childish comparisons meant mostly for raw beginners to understand basic concepts. They are fun and entertaining but not something that will turn you into a senior developer.
But it struck me. Even in a small way, this childish metaphor made me a better developer. It fixed a fundamental misunderstanding: we don’t put values in variables. If variables did behave like buckets or containers, how could this be true?
const count1 = 10; const count2 = count1;
How is it possible to have the same
10 value in two different buckets? The same thing can’t be in two places at the same time, right?!
But the octopus metaphor solved this dilemma for me. Two tentacles can certainly grab the same value! It’s a visualization that reveals the underlying nature of values! Give me all of the world’s computer science literature on variables at my fingertips, and it would not be as useful to me as this imaginary octopus.
My Search For More Visual Learning Material
I noticed a frustrating gap between doing the simple loop and function exercises you find in most beginner courses and actually building programs.
The problem? I still wasn’t at the level where I could decipher reams of dry technical text. I wanted more octopuses!
So, I looked everywhere for them. I scanned the internet for visual and abstract learning resources: Google, YouTube, Medium, TikTok, and every book I could possibly find. I discovered most “visual learning” material fits into one of three groups.
First is a gamified learning experience, like the learn-while-playing platforms CodeCombat and ElevatorSaga. While wonderfully creative and full of stories and characters that help you build real programs with real-world patterns, this type of learning is procedural. The focus is on using concepts rather than diving into what they are.
The second group is the graphically represented syntax or technical explanation. Ever seen an array of apple and orange emojis? Or diagrams of the
The third group is closer to what I sought: the analogy-driven learning experience. Developers love a good analogy. We use them all the time in blog posts and video tutorials. They help explain very technical concepts. One resource I found, CodeAnalogies, is particularly impressive, with analogies for everything from content distribution networks to MVC frameworks.
Finally, I came to realize the thing I wanted most was something memorable. I wanted to consolidate everything I was learning into a visual format that was easy to recall when I needed it — whether in an interview or while writing code. Unfortunately, most analogies are entirely forgettable. How many dog, cat, and banana arrays can one take?
Building My Own Visual Representations
I’ve always had an interest in mnemonic memory methods. These are memory “hacks,” such as the “memory palace”. They help visually encode large amounts of information for easier recall. World memory competitors use it to remember the order of multiple decks of cards and random number sequences.
The basic principle is this: You can take any idea and turn it into an image. For example, an array could be an ocean stingray. That’s good, but still not enough. The trick is to make the mental image as weird, funny, and ridiculous as possible. Images that are out of the ordinary are what stick to memory.
My First Big Lesson
I was so proud of this. We have a stingray street vendor selling fruit, reminding me that arrays hold data. He has a special square device for picking up individual items that represent the square bracket syntax for selecting items. He has a monocle to remind me that arrays have methods for searching. He has a cowboy lasso that refers to loops, and so on.
I didn’t need a way to remember the term array. Knowing they have methods to search does not tell me how I can perform searches. Even a Swiss Army knife tail with all the main array methods like
.unshift() proved pointless with a two-second Google search.
This was trickier than I thought. I learned my first big lesson:
We can’t learn a programming language using pure mnemonic methods because memorizing the lists of things does not help you understand the underlying concepts.“
My Second Big Lesson
After much reflection and many, many more failed attempts, I tried to represent something I had always struggled with: functions. What would the makeup of a function look like? I came up with this pretty poor representation:
At the top, we have silly paratroopers that represent parameters. We send parameters through the entrance,
( ), and they end up in a contained pool (i.e., the function body). They start arguing, and that’s how we can remember
Unfortunately, this went into the failure bucket, too. Representing syntax isn’t helpful. It’s better to gain familiarity through lots of practice writing it. There were also dangerous flaws in the analogy. It suggested parameters and arguments are the same; the only difference is their place.
An abstraction like this with flawed theory baked into it would actually make me a worse developer! I needed to dig deeper into what things really are.
What were the tentacles grasping? Values!
Values are the islands, and each island has a set location and size. That was it! It was exactly what I was looking for. It still didn’t improve my skills as a developer. But I knew it had potential.
From Analogies To Models
Each image was not a simple analogy. It was a mental model — a way of thinking. It provided a lens to interpret each concept but required imagination. I call them imagimodels.
Growing A Memorable, Multi-Layered Universe
A narrative is what drove the other concepts into the picture, quite literally. Here, we can see a closure:
The next image uses mnemonic methods for remembering useful terminology. Unlike arrays and parameters, “execution context” felt like something I would read in an IBM manual from the 1970s. It was a scary term that deserved a scary representation.
I found a connection between “execution context” and the phrase “executor got hex,” which inspired an illustration of a medieval-style executioner holding an axe in one hand and a hex, or sorcerer’s spell, in the other.
Why the spell? It’s not random. It builds on previous existing layers representing other sub-concepts. The spell is tied to our understanding of a function invocation and makes you think of wizards and sorcerers, right? And it is the parenthesis in every function call.
This begs the question, what is a function? Is it the result of the hex or the execution? Is it the invocation itself? Only a firm understanding of objects would help me identify what really is going on here.
A Celebration Of Alternative Learning Approaches
My biggest takeaway from all my learning efforts is this: Despite The Great Sync solving so many of my personal struggles with the language, is it any better than any single one of the resources I mentioned? Does it have any use without actual coding — the tireless, painful process of trying to get your code to work? Certainly not.
Further Reading on Smashing Magazine
- Interactive Learning Tools For Front-End Developers