Codebreaking: An Exercise of the Mind

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Codebreaking is a wondrous demonstration of the strength of the human mind. It is a practice that weaves together disciplines ranging from math and computing, to history and linguistics. Codebreaking, at its essence, requires the connection of disparate information: the codebreaker takes the garbage data he/she is given, and using the knowledge he/she possesses, uncovers the latent truth behind the cruft. A codebreaker, therefore, needs to possess an aptitude for seeing what others do not, the ability to find creative solutions to problems, and, of course, a great deal of patience. Codes, on their surface, reveal little. While they may take the form of numbers, letters, bytes, or symbols, the primary goal of most codes is either to conceal or condense information. In the context of codebreaking, the codes that pique the most interest are, of course, the ones that hide a message from unauthorized eavesdroppers. The role of the codebreaker is not always the honest one, for it is his/her job to undo the careful manipulations of the sender to uncover, without the key for the lock, what the message contains. To do this, he/she must rely on intuition, on reasoning, and sometimes on “luck,” to get his/her way. In his book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” Daniel Kahneman defines two “systems” of thought, which he terms System 1 and System 2. Though he defines the two systems in great detail, in essence, the human mind thinks with either “slow thinking” or “fast thinking.” System 1 is the “fast thinking” system. It is automatic and unconscious. It’s based on human instinct and learns by association. System 2, on the other hand, is the “slow thinking” system. It’s the system that we can control, the system that we use when we concentrate hard a... ... middle of paper ... does not correlate directly with improvement in codebreaking skill: in other words, it is not only thinking harder, not only thinking smarter, but a combination of the two that leads to a great codebreaker. Codebreaking is not for everyone; however, the qualities that create an excellent codebreaker applies to many other disciplines, and indeed, also in everyday life. A codebreaker needs to have a finely tuned System 1 that is capable of intuitively finding patterns and seeing through unrelated data to retrieve what is actually relevant. A codebreaker needs to be able to apply what he has learned, not only in class or from books, but from his entire life experience, and to apply that knowledge to the context of the problem. Finally, a codebreaker needs to be willing to dedicate both time and effort into training his mind, constantly improving his thinking Systems.

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