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

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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

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Last Updated on September 10, 2018

Overcoming The Pain Of A Breakup: 3 Suggestions Based On Science

Overcoming The Pain Of A Breakup: 3 Suggestions Based On Science

We thought that the expression ‘broken heart’ was just a metaphor, but science is telling us that it is not: breakups and rejections do cause physical pain. When a group of psychologists asked research participants to look at images of their ex-partners who broke up with them, researchers found that the same brain areas that are activated by physical pain are also activated by looking at images of ex-partners. Looking at images of our ex is a painful experience, literally.[1].

Given that the effect of rejections and breakups is the same as the effect of physical pain, scientists have speculated on whether the practices that reduce physical pain could be used to reduce the emotional pain that follows from breakups and rejections. In a study on whether painkillers reduce the emotional pain caused by a breakup, researchers found that painkillers did help. Individuals who took painkillers were better able to deal with their breakup. Tamar Cohen wrote that “A simple dose of paracetamol could help ease the pain of a broken heart.”[2]

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Just like painkillers can be used to ease the pain of a broken heart, other practices that ease physical pain can also be used to ease the pain of rejections and breakups. Three of these scientifically validated practices are presented in this article.

Looking at images of loved ones

While images of ex-partners stimulate the pain neuro-circuitry in our brain, images of loved ones activate a different circuitry. Looking at images of people who care about us increases the release of oxytocin in our body. Oxytocin, or the “cuddle hormone,” is the hormone that our body relies on to induce in us a soothing feeling of tranquility, even when we are under high stress and pain.

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In fact, oxytocin was found to have a crucial role as a mother is giving birth to her baby. Despite the extreme pain that a mother has to endure during delivery, the high level of oxytocin secreted by her body transforms pain into pleasure. Mariem Melainine notes that, “Oxytocin levels are usually at their peak during delivery, which promotes a sense of euphoria in the mother and helps her develop a stronger bond with her baby.”[3]

Whenever you feel tempted to look at images of your ex-partner, log into your Facebook page and start browsing images of your loved ones. As Eva Ritvo, M.D. notes, “Facebook fools our brain into believing that loved ones surround us, which historically was essential to our survival. The human brain, because it evolved thousands of years before photography, fails on many levels to recognize the difference between pictures and people”[4]

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Exercise

Endorphins are neurotransmitters that reduce our perception of pain. When our body is high on endorphins, painful sensations are kept outside of conscious awareness. It was found that exercise causes endorphins to be secreted in the brain and as a result produce a feeling of power, as psychologist Alex Korb noted in his book: “Exercise causes your brain to release endorphins, neurotransmitters that act on your neurons like opiates (such as morphine or Vicodin) by sending a neural signal to reduce pain and provide anxiety relief.”[5] By inhibiting pain from being transmitted to our brain, exercise acts as a powerful antidote to the pain caused by rejections and breakups.

Meditation

Jon Kabat Zinn, a doctor who pioneered the use of mindfulness meditation therapy for patients with chronic pain, has argued that it is not pain itself that is harmful to our mental health, rather, it is the way we react to pain. When we react to pain with irritation, frustration, and self-pity, more pain is generated, and we enter a never ending spiral of painful thoughts and sensations.

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In order to disrupt the domino effect caused by reacting to pain with pain, Kabat Zinn and other proponents of mindfulness meditation therapy have suggested reacting to pain through nonjudgmental contemplation and acceptance. By practicing meditation on a daily basis and getting used to the habit of paying attention to the sensations generated by our body (including the painful ones and by observing these sensations nonjudgmentally and with compassion) our brain develops the habit of reacting to pain with grace and patience.

When you find yourself thinking about a recent breakup or a recent rejection, close your eyes and pay attention to the sensations produced by your body. Take deep breaths and as you are feeling the sensations produced by your body, distance yourself from them, and observe them without judgment and with compassion. If your brain starts wandering and gets distracted, gently bring back your compassionate nonjudgmental attention to your body. Try to do this exercise for one minute and gradually increase its duration.

With consistent practice, nonjudgmental acceptance will become our default reaction to breakups, rejections, and other disappointments that we experience in life. Every rejection and every breakup teaches us great lessons about relationships and about ourselves.

Featured photo credit: condesign via pixabay.com

Reference

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