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If You’re a Programmer, Your Brain Could Be Priceless to Science. Here’s Why

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Programming is relatively new on the neuroscience horizon. A demanding and complicated set of skills is required for the successful programmer. And neuroscientists are just now beginning to unlock the secrets of how a programmer’s mind is wired, and what the constant demands of programming can do to the human brain.

That is why neuroscientists have begun a program of doing brain scans, MRIs, of professional programmers; so they can collate and compare and then extrapolate data to tell them how this relatively new career impacts the mind.

Programming as a foreign language

One of the more fascinating aspects of this issue is the question: is programming a foreign language, like Swedish or Chinese? Some universities are now considering giving foreign language credits to students who are majoring in programming.

Certain synapse functions in the brain are enhanced with the learning of a foreign language: those for general intelligence and social ability. This may account for the unusual brilliance and volubility of most programmers. But it is still only a theory that will need years of testing to confirm.

But it’s also considered a mathematical discipline

Does it matter if programming is labeled as a foreign language, instead of as a branch of mathematics?

It could matter very much, especially when federal funding is involved.

The hard sciences, like math, receive much more funding than the soft sciences, like foreign languages.

So the question being debated right now among those who fund such things is whether to study programmers as speakers of a foreign tongue, or as students of math.

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Programmers and cognitive tasks

Scientists are studying programmers as they create code in order to discover if this is more of a mathematical cognitive task or a language task. Using MRIs and other types of brain scans, they are intrigued by the connection between the creativity usually displayed by foreign language learners and the way programmers handle the highly complex task of writing code. The brain normally has a completely different set of reactions when exposed to mathematical problem solving.

The brain of an expert

The human brain has many little “compartments” where specific information needed by experts is stored. Scientists say these little cubby holes are where things like facial recognition or sound recognition are kept handy and available for instant use. These storage units have existed in the human brain for tens of thousands of years, helping man to evolve and adapt. Many of these expert skills are lodged in the fusiform gyrus.

However, with programming being a relatively new set of expert skills, scientists are not yet sure where the skill sets of a programmer are permanently lodged in the brain. There are some general areas of the brain that apparently are kept open for new experiences and skill sets. Scientists believe that is where the specific skills a programmer uses are stored. But these areas are hard to track when it comes to increased brain wave activity. Much more study needs to be done.

The same holds true for those involved in designing and testing video games. This is a new set of cognitive abilities that our ancestors never had need of, and so their brains, and our brains, have not created a special depository for that kind of knowledge. Neuroscientists are exploring and mapping the human mind with the latest MRI technology to discover how all this new and unique knowledge and experience is assimilated.

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Bigger brains

Scientists are extremely interested to see what part of the brain, if any, becomes enlarged as a man or woman devotes his or her life to programming. In other demanding professions, certain parts of the brain grow physically larger over the years, as knowledge and expertise are stored there. Such is the case with taxi drivers in London, who, according to studies, have had their parahippocampal regions enlarged by navigating constantly to Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square.

And busier

In studying novice golfers as compared to professional golfers, scientists have discovered that the novice golfer’s brain lights up like a Christmas tree as it attempts to coordinate everything for a successful swing of the club; whereas a professional golfer’s brain gives off almost no extra activity when getting ready to swing.

Scientists wonder, is this a sign of causality?

So far, researchers have not discovered this same pattern when comparing beginning programmers with experienced programmers. Scientists are trying to determine if there is a fundamental difference in the brain’s conception of programming, or if measuring technology for such delicate readings simply needs to be improved.

What part of the brain understands source code?

Dr. Janet Siegmund and a team of international scientists have recently been studying programmers as they have been comprehending short source code snippets. It was hoped that specific brain regions that dealt only with code would be indicated.

Several brain regions were finally located that had direct input into the process: language processing, attention span, and working memory were all included. The ventral lateral prefrontal cortex was heavily involved. Dr. Siegmund says that much more detailed study is needed before anything like an exact mapping can be done.

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Initial conclusions from the study indicated that language and memory skills were much more highlighted than mathematical ability. This might be good news for prospective programming students who are strong in language skills but rather less so in math.

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Featured photo credit: Héctor García via m.flickr.com

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