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Reading Computer Code does not Activate Language-Processing Centres in the Brain

First-time coders often compare the process of learning to program a computer to learning a new language. Both feature a variety of symbols and syntax that governs their arrangements, all for the purposes of communication and giving instructions.

And yet, reading code is not quite the same as reading text. As recently discovered by a research team led by MIT, parsing code does not activate the brain’s language-processing centres, such as Broca’s area, the insular cortex, and others.

Neither a math problem, nor a language, computer programming is a cognitively unique task, which could have implications for future instructors. Image:, CC0 Public Domain

What does get activated, however, is a distributed network called the multiple demand network (MDN), typically associated with solving math problems, crossword puzzles, and performing other demanding mental tasks which require holding many pieces of information at the same time.

What’s even more noteworthy is that reading code seems to activate parts of the network that are not involved in either math or logic. This indicates that computer programming, while being a cognitively demanding task, is more than just a type of logical thinking.

“Understanding computer code seems to be its own thing. It’s not the same as language, and it’s not the same as math and logic,” said Anna Ivanova, a graduate student at MIT and lead author on the paper published in the journal eLife.

The aim of the study was to test the two principal hypotheses regarding the way in which the brain learns how to code. The first one claims that learning code requires superior math skills, while the second one emphasises linguistic proficiency.

Finding out which hypothesis is closer to the truth, the researchers had a group of young adults lie down in an fMRI scanner and look at snippets of code written in the relatively easy-to-read Python or ScratchJr programming languages.

The subjects – who were all proficient in the aforesaid languages – were then asked to try and predict the meaning of the code and what action it was going to produce.

Results showed that reading code activates both the left and right sides of the MDN, involved in maths and logic, and spatial navigation, respectively. This likely means that being proficient at maths is not a strict requirement for becoming a good programmer.

According to Ivanova, these findings could eventually help educators develop new approaches to teaching the in-demand programmers of the future.

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