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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 June 21, 2018

Science Says Screaming Is Good For You

Science Says Screaming Is Good For You

There are many reasons why people might scream – they’re angry, scared, or in pain (or maybe they’re in a metal band!). Some might say that screaming is bad, but here’s why science says it’s good for you.

“For the first time in the history of psychology there is a way to access feelings, hidden away, in a safe way and thus to reduce human suffering. It is, in essence, the first science of psychotherapy.” — Dr. Arthur Janov

Primal Therapy

Dr. Arthur Janov invented Primal Therapy in the late 1960’s. It is a practice that allows the patient to face their repressed emotions from past trauma head on and let those emotions go. This treatment is intended to cure any mental illness the patient may have that surfaced from this past trauma. In most cases, Primal Therapy has lead Dr. Janov’s patients to scream towards the end of their session, though it was not part of the original procedure. During a group therapy session that was at a standstill, Dr. Janov says that one of his patients, a student he called Danny, told a story that inspired him to implement a technique that he never would have thought of on his own.

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How it Started

“During a lull in our group therapy session, he told us a story about a man named Ortiz who was currently doing an act on the London stage in which he paraded around in diapers drinking bottles of milk. Throughout his number, Ortiz is shouting, ‘Mommy! Daddy! Mommy! Daddy!’ at the top of his lungs. At the end of his act he vomits. Plastic bags are passed out, and the audience is requested to follow suit.”

It doesn’t end there, though. Dr. Janov said that his patient was quite fascinated with that story, and that alone moved him to suggest something even he believed to be a little elementary.

“I asked him to call out, ‘Mommy! Daddy!’ Danny refused, saying that he couldn’t see the sense in such a childish act, and frankly, neither could I. But I persisted, and finally, he gave in. As he began, he became noticeably upset. Suddenly he was writhing on the floor in agony. His breathing was rapid, spasmodic. ‘Mommy! Daddy!’ came out of his mouth almost involuntarily in loud screeches. He appeared to be in a coma or hypnotic state. The writhing gave way to small convulsions, and finally, he released a piercing, deathlike scream that rattled the walls of my office. The entire episode lasted only a few minutes, and neither Danny nor I had any idea what had happened. All he could say afterward was: ‘I made it! I don’t know what, but I can feel.’”

Delving deeper

Dr. Janov says he was baffled for months, but then he decided to experiment with another patient with the same method, which lead to a similar result as before. The patient started out calling “Mommy! Daddy!” then experienced convulsions, heavy breathing, and then eventually screamed. After the session, Dr. Janov says his patient was transformed and became “virtually another human being. He became alert… he seemed to understand himself.”

Although the initial intention of this particular practice wasn’t to get the patient to scream, more than once did his Primal Therapy sessions end with the patient screaming and feeling lighter, revived, and relieved of stresses that were holding them down in life.

Some Methods To Practice Screaming

If you want to try it out for yourself, keep reading!

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  • Step 1: Be Alone — Be alone. If you live in a place that you can’t be alone, it might be a good idea to talk to your family or roommates and explain to them what you’re about to do and make sure they’re okay with it. If you’re good to go, move on to step 2.
  • Step 2: Lie Down — Lie down on a yoga mat on your back and place a pillow underneath your head. If you don’t own a yoga mat, you can use a rug or even a soft blanket.
  • Step 3: Think — Think of things that have hurt you or made you angry. It can be anything from your childhood or even something that happened recently to make yourself cry, if you’re not already crying or upset. You could even scream “Mommy! Daddy!” just like Dr. Janov’s patients did to get yourself started.
  • Step 4: Scream — Don’t hold anything back; cry and scream as loud as you can. You can also pound your fists on the ground, or just lie there and scream at the top of your lungs.

After this, you should return your breathing to a normal and steady pace. You should feel lighter, like a weight has been lifted off of you. If not, you can also try these other methods.

Scream Sing

Scream singing” is referring to what a lot of lead singers in metal or screamo bands will do. I’ve tried it and although I wasn’t very good at it, it was fun and definitely relieved me of any stress I was feeling from before. It usually ends up sounding like a really loud grunt, but nonetheless, it’s considered screaming.

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  • Step 1 — Bear down and make a grunting sound.
  • Step 2 — Hiss like a snake and make sure to do this from your diaphragm (your stomach) for as long as you can.
  • Step 3 — Breathe and push your stomach out for more air when you are belting notes, kind of like you would if you were singing.
  • Step 4 — Try different ways to let out air to control how long the note will last, just make sure not to let out too much air.
  • Step 5 — Distort your voice by pushing air out from your throat, just be careful not to strain yourself.
  • Step 6 — Play around with the pitch of your screams and how wide your mouth is open – the wider your mouth is open, the higher the screams will sound. The narrower or rounder your mouth is (and most likely shaped like an “o”), the lower the screams will sound.
  • Step 7 — Start screaming to metal music. If you’re not a huge metal fan, it’s okay. You don’t have to use this method if you don’t want to.

If you want a more thorough walkthrough of how to scream sing, here’s a good video tutorial. If this method is too strenuous on your vocal chords, stop. Also, make sure to stay hydrated when scream singing and drink lots of water.

Scream into a pillow

Grab a pillow and scream into it. This method is probably the fastest and easiest way to practice screaming. Just make sure to come up for air.

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Always remember to make sure that you’re not going to disturb anyone while practicing any of these methods of screaming. And with that, happy screaming!

Featured photo credit: Sharon Mollerus via flickr.com

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