A new research by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has found that coding activates both the left and right sides of the brain.
Coding or programming are often described as learning a new “language” as they require learning new symbols and terms which must be organized correctly to instruct the computer what to do. The computer code must also be clear enough that other programmers can read and understand it.
MIT neuroscientists have now found that reading computer code does not activate the regions of the brain involved in language processing. Instead, it activates a distributed network called the multiple demand network, which is also recruited for complex cognitive tasks such as solving math problems or crossword puzzles.
However, although reading computer code activates the multiple demand network, it appears to rely more on different parts of the network than math or logic problems do. This suggests that coding does not precisely replicate the cognitive demands of mathematics either.
“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,” says Anna Ivanova, an MIT graduate student and the lead author of the study.
The research was funded by the National Science Foundation, the Department of the Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, and the McGovern Institute for Brain Research.
Language and cognition
There are two schools of thought regarding how the brain learns to code. One holds that in order to be good at programming, you must be good at math. The other suggests that because of the parallels between coding and language, language skills might be more relevant. To shed light on this issue, the researchers set out to study whether brain activity patterns while reading computer code would overlap with language-related brain activity.
The two programming languages that the researchers focused on in this study are known for their readability — Python and ScratchJr. The subjects in the study were all young adults proficient in the language they were being tested on. While the programmers lay in a functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) scanner, the researchers showed them snippets of code and asked them to predict what action the code would produce.
The researchers saw little to no response to code in the language regions of the brain. Instead, they found that the coding task mainly activated the so-called multiple demand network. This network, whose activity is spread throughout the frontal and parietal lobes of the brain, is typically recruited for tasks that require holding many pieces of information in mind at once, and is responsible for our ability to perform a wide variety of mental tasks.
Previous studies have shown that math and logic problems seem to rely mainly on the multiple demand regions in the left hemisphere, while tasks that involve spatial navigation activate the right hemisphere more than the left. The MIT team found that reading computer code appears to activate both the left and right sides of the multiple demand network, and ScratchJr activated the right side slightly more than the left.
A team of researchers from Johns Hopkins University also reported that solving code problems activates the multiple demand network rather than the language regions.
In practical life, the new findings mean that computer science educators will now have to develop their own approaches – that combine language and logic techniques – for teaching code most effectively.
Materials provided by Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Original written by Anne Trafton.