Computer programming is equivalent to studying a new language in several respects. It necessitates the acquisition of new terms and symbols, which must be properly arranged in order to advise the machine about what to do. The machine code must also be easy to interpret and comprehend for other programmers.
Despite these parallels, MIT neuroscientists discovered that interpreting computer code does not trigger the language-processing regions of the brain. Instead, it unlocks the multiple demand network, a hierarchical network that is often recruited for challenging cognitive challenges including solving crossword puzzles or math problems.
While reading machine code stimulates the multiple demand network, it tends to depend on separate sections of the network than logic or math problems, implying that coding does not exactly mimic the computational demands of mathematics.
The paper’s senior author is Evelina Fedorenko, and Carole J. and Frederick A. Researchers of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory & Tufts University collaborated on the thesis.
Cognition & Language
The association between language and other cognitive functions is a major subject of Fedorenko’s study. She’s very interested in whether the brain’s language network, which involves Broca’s area and other areas in the left hemisphere, is involved in other roles. Music and math do not seem to trigger this language network, according to previous research from her lab.
She claims that there are two schools of thinking about how the brain learns to code. One school of thought maintains that in order to be a good programmer, you must be a good mathematician. The other contends that linguistic abilities are more important because of the similarities in coding and language. The researchers had set out to see whether brain activation patterns when reading computer code might interfere with the language-related brain activity to shed light on this topic.
ScratchJr and Python, a visual programming language intended for children aged 5 and up, are the two programming languages that the researchers concentrated on in this analysis because of their readability. The participants in the research were all young adults who were fluent in the language being studied. The researchers gave the programmers samples of code and challenged them to predict what behavior the code might take when they were lying in a working magnetic resonance (fMRI) scanner.
The language regions of the brain had little or no reaction to code, according to the researchers. Instead, they discovered that the coding role was primarily responsible for activating the so-called multiple demand network. This network, whose function is distributed around the frontal and parietal lobes of the brain, is normally recruited for activities that include keeping several pieces of knowledge in mind at the same time, and it is responsible for our capacity to execute a broad range of mental tasks.
Previous research has shown that math and logic problems seem to depend mostly on the left hemisphere’s various demand areas, while spatial navigation tasks stimulate the right hemisphere rather than the left. Reading machine code seems to trigger both the left and right sides of the multiple demand network, according to the MIT researchers, with ScratchJr activating the right side significantly more than the left. This result contradicts the theory that math and coding use the same neural pathways in the brain.
According to the researchers, although no regions of the brain tend to be dedicated solely to programming, certain advanced brain function could evolve in people with a lot more coding experience.
A group of researchers at Johns Hopkins University announced in a companion paper published in the same issue from eLife that solving problems related to code unlocks the multiple demand network instead of the language regions.
The results show that there is no clear conclusion as to whether coding can be learned as a math or language ability. This is due in part to the fact that learning to program will include both language and multiple demand structures, even though programming itself does not depend on the language regions until mastered, according to the researchers.
MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, The National Science Foundation, alongside the McGovern Institute for Brain Studies also contributed to the study.