Reading code activates a general-purpose brain network, but not language processing centers, which shows that the programming language is not assimilated as if it were an ordinary language that we use to communicate.
Thus, although computer code has the characteristics of a language, when read it activates a distributed network called a multiple demand network , which is also used for complex cognitive tasks such as solving mathematical problems or crossword puzzles.
Neither language nor mathematics
A programming language is a formal language (or artificial, that is, a language with well-defined grammar rules) that provides a person, in this case the programmer, the ability to write (or program) a series of instructions or sequences of commands in the form of algorithms in order to control the physical or logical behavior of a computer. But it activates different regions in our brain when we read.
However, although reading code activates the multiple demand network, it appears to depend more on different parts of the network than mathematical or logical problems, suggesting that coding also does not accurately replicate the cognitive demands of mathematics . That is, the code is not processed as a language, but not as mathematics either.
There are two schools of thought regarding how the brain learns to write code . One holds that 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, therefore, the researchers set out to study whether patterns of brain activity when reading the code would overlap with language-related brain activity.
The researchers say that while they did not identify any regions that appear to be dedicated exclusively to programming, such specialized brain activity could develop in people who have much more experience with coding. The findings suggest that there is no definitive answer to whether coding should be taught as a math-based skill or a language-based skill.
The two programming languages that the researchers focused on in this study are known for their readability: Python and ScratchJr , a visual programming language designed for children ages 5 and up.
Evelina Fedorenko, Frederick A. and Carole J. Middleton Professional Development Associate Professor of Neuroscience and a fellow at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, is the lead author of this study , which has been published in eLife . Researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and Tufts University also participated in the study.