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.


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.


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.


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.

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

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Last Updated on June 6, 2019

Science Says Silence Is Much More Important To Our Brains Than We Think

Science Says Silence Is Much More Important To Our Brains Than We Think

In 2011, the Finnish Tourist Board ran a campaign that used silence as a marketing ‘product’. They sought to entice people to visit Finland and experience the beauty of this silent land. They released a series of photographs of single figures in the nature and used the slogan “Silence, Please”. A tag line was added by Simon Anholt, an international country branding consultant, “No talking, but action.”

Eva Kiviranta the manager of the social media for said: “We decided, instead of saying that it’s really empty and really quiet and nobody is talking about anything here, let’s embrace it and make it a good thing”.

Finland may be on to something very big. You could be seeing the very beginnings of using silence as a selling point as silence may be becoming more and more attractive. As the world around becomes increasingly loud and cluttered you may find yourself seeking out the reprieve that silent places and silence have to offer. This may be a wise move as studies are showing that silence is much more important to your brains than you might think.

Regenerated brain cells may be just a matter of silence.


     A 2013 study on mice published in the journal Brain, Structure and Function used differed types of noise and silence and monitored the effect the sound and silence had on the brains of the mice.[1] The silence was intended to be the control in the study but what they found was surprising. The scientists discovered that when the mice were exposed to two hours of silence per day they developed new cells in the hippocampus. The hippocampus is a region of the brain associated with memory, emotion and learning.


    The growth of new cells in the brain does not necessarily translate to tangible health benefits. However, in this instance, researcher Imke Kirste says that the cells appeared to become functioning neurons.

    “We saw that silence is really helping the new generated cells to differentiate into neurons, and integrate into the system.”

    In this sense silence can quite literally grow your brain.

    The brain is actively internalizing and evaluating information during silence


      A 2001 study defined a “default mode” of brain function that showed that even when the brain was “resting” it was perpetually active internalizing and evaluating information.


      Follow-up research found that the default mode is also used during the process of self-reflection. In 2013, in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Joseph Moran et al. wrote, the brain’s default mode network “is observed most closely during the psychological task of reflecting on one’s personalities and characteristics (self-reflection), rather than during self-recognition, thinking of the self-concept, or thinking about self-esteem, for example.

      “When the brain rests it is able to integrate internal and external information into “a conscious workspace,” said Moran and colleagues.

      When you are not distracted by noise or goal-orientated tasks, there appears to be a quiet time that allows your conscious workspace to process things. During these periods of silence, your brain has the freedom it needs to discover its place in your internal and external world.

      The default mode helps you think about profound things in an imaginative way.

      As Herman Melville once wrote,[2]


      “All profound things and emotions of things are preceded and attended by silence.”

      Silence relieves stress and tension.


        It has been found that noise can have a pronounced physical effect on our brains resulting in elevated levels of stress hormones. The sound waves reach the brain as electrical signals via the ear. The body reacts to these signals even if it is sleeping. It is thought that the amygdalae (located in the temporal lobes of the brain) which is associated with memory formation and emotion is activated and this causes a release of stress hormones. If you live in a consistently noisy environment that you are likely to experience chronically elevated levels of stress hormones.

        A study that was published in 2002 in Psychological Science (Vol. 13, No. 9) examined the effects that the relocation of Munich’s airport had on children’s health and cognition. Gary W. Evans, a professor of human ecology at Cornell University notes that children who are exposed to noise develop a stress response that causes them to ignore the noise. What is of interest is that these children not only ignored harmful stimuli they also ignored stimuli that they should be paying attention to such as speech. 

        “This study is among the strongest, probably the most definitive proof that noise – even at levels that do not produce any hearing damage – causes stress and is harmful to humans,” Evans says.[3]

        Silence seems to have the opposite effect of the brain to noise. While noise may cause stress and tension silence releases tension in the brain and body. A study published in the journal Heart discovered that two minutes of silence can prove to be even more relaxing than listening to “relaxing” music. They based these findings of changes they noticed in blood pressure and blood circulation in the brain.[4]

        Silence replenishes our cognitive resources.


          The effect that noise pollution can have on cognitive task performance has been extensively studied. It has been found that noise harms task performance at work and school. It can also be the cause of decreased motivation and an increase in error making.  The cognitive functions most strongly affected by noise are reading attention, memory and problem solving.

          Studies have also concluded that children exposed to households or classrooms near airplane flight paths, railways or highways have lower reading scores and are slower in their development of cognitive and language skills.

          But it is not all bad news. It is possible for the brain to restore its finite cognitive resources. According to the attention restoration theory when you are in an environment with lower levels of sensory input the brain can ‘recover’ some of its cognitive abilities. In silence the brain is able to let down its sensory guard and restore some of what has been ‘lost’ through excess noise.[5]



          Traveling to Finland may just well be on your list of things to do. There you may find the silence you need to help your brain. Or, if Finland is a bit out of reach for now, you could simply take a quiet walk in a peaceful place in your neighborhood. This might prove to do you and your brain a world of good.

          Featured photo credit: Angelina Litvin via


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