I have great trouble doing recursion, especially trying to visualize it. A great example is the aging wine problem described in the top answer of this link: https://www.quora.com/Are-there-any-good-resources-or-tutorials-for-dynamic-programming-besides-the-TopCoder-tutorial. In the example, you are tasked with finding the optimal sequence of wine to sell given the wine's initial prices and the fact that the prices double each year.

int p[N]; // read-only array of wine prices
// year represents the current year (starts with 1)
// [be, en] represents the interval of the unsold wines on the shelf
int profit(int year, int be, int en) {
  // there are no more wines on the shelf
  if (be > en)
    return 0;
  // try to sell the leftmost or the rightmost wine, recursively calculate the 
  // answer and return the better one
  return max(
    profit(year+1, be+1, en) + year * p[be],
    profit(year+1, be, en-1) + year * p[en]);

Above, I have a hard time visualizing. First I think what the function returns at the end of the recursion, which is a 0, then I try to calculate the value that is returned from the second to last recursion. I can do this for several steps until I get lost.

  • 3
    The problem here isn't recursion. This is a semantic nightmare. What the heck is "an interval of unsold wines"? What are be and en? Do you mean begin and end? Why are you multiplying a year by a price? Jul 16, 2016 at 1:31
  • @CandiedOrange I didn't write that. Its from the link. be and en are indices pointed at the first and last index respectively. You are multiplying year by price since the price increases per year so p_n = p_{n-1} * y_{n-1}.
    – mrQWERTY
    Jul 16, 2016 at 1:33
  • 2
    Let the computer do the recursion. Try only to visualize the breaking down of the problem into the next smaller step, and at only one level.
    – Erik Eidt
    Jul 16, 2016 at 3:25
  • 2
    It doesn't matter if you didn't write it. You failed to rewrite it. Rewrite it using good descriptive names and meaningful comments . Then try to see how hard understanding recursion is. Bad names are hard to understand using any technique. You're making it harder than it needs to be. Jul 16, 2016 at 3:34

3 Answers 3


Don't try to descend the stack in your head. That way madness lies. By the magic of mathematic induction, every recursive invocation below you can be assumed to be debugged and already working thanks to the programmer who is the future you. Treat it like a call to a library function that you don't have the source code to. If it helps you to work it out, comment it out temporarily and replace it with its results for a test case of reasonable size.

In other words, you don't need to be able to follow the complete algorithm. All you need to know is how to make the problem slightly smaller so you can call an algorithm that already works thanks to recursive you, and write a trivial base case. I can't stress that enough. Trust that the recursive call already works. Once you do that, recursive algorithms become way easier.

  • 1
    Recursion/induction a great combination of programming and time travel. Jul 16, 2016 at 9:58
  • 1
    +1 "every recursive invocation below you can be assumed to be debugged and already working thanks to the programmer who is the future you" When reading this all I could think of is Turtls all the way down... as in this xkcd xkcd.com/1416
    – Newtopian
    Aug 16, 2016 at 13:40

Don't. Sketch it instead.

I mean, unless you are pondering a solution during a traffic stop, or anywhere where you don't have access to writing material, or you are attempting to show off intellectual machismo, I don't see any reason to make it hard for yourself, especially when there are more than a handful of recursions at play.

Further, it is more important to get the ball rolling than solving the problem in your head. So once you understand what is happening, just code it and run it. You may step through in the debugger to see the exact values as a sort of crosschecking with your mental calculation.


Actually you have two ways to understand what recursion does. Your looking for a way to visualize recursion. The straightforward way is to do represent the recursive calls as tree. Each node of the tree is a call to the recursive function. The leaves of the tree are the calls to your recursive function which do not calls the recursive function. the root of the tree is the first call to the recursive function. Each time the recursive function calls itself, you have to add a child node. Note that the traversal of the tree is a left most traversal (also called pre-order traversal). tell me if you want some further info about that kind of visualization.

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