Brain Perceives Computer Coding and Language Reading Differently, MIT Study Finds

Learning to code doesn't work the exact same way as learning a language or using maths and logic in the brain.
Loukia Papadopoulos

A new MIT study is revealed that, despite many similarities, learning to program and learning a new language are quite different from a neurological perspective. A team of neuroscientists discovered that the regions of the brain that are involved in language processing are not activated when reading computer code.


Math and logic

Instead, a distributed network called the multiple demand network (used for complex cognitive tasks such as math and logic) is activated. However, despite the multiple demand network being activated, different parts than those associated with cognitive tasks were targeted during programming. This led the researchers to believe that coding is in a league of its own.

“Understanding computer code seems to be its own thing. It’s not the same as language, and it’s not the same as math and logic,” said Anna Ivanova, an MIT graduate student and the lead author of the study.

The researchers had also been studying the relationship between language and other cognitive functions. In terms of coding, they focused their research on two programming languages: Python and ScratchJr.

“Here, we were interested in exploring the relationship between language and computer programming, partially because computer programming is such a new invention that we know that there couldn’t be any hardwired mechanisms that make us good programmers,” Ivanova said.

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Still different

Compared to previous research that indicated that math and logic problems seem to rely on the multiple demand regions in the left hemisphere, reading computer code appeared to activate both the left and right sides of the multiple demand network, with ScratchJr activating the right side slightly more than the left. 

The researchers now speculate that experienced programmers may even have regions that are exclusively devoted to programming, although none have been identified yet.

“It’s possible that if you take people who are professional programmers, who have spent 30 or 40 years coding in a particular language, you may start seeing some specialization, or some crystallization of parts of the multiple demand system,” said Evelina Fedorenko, the Frederick A. and Carole J. Middleton Career Development Associate Professor of Neuroscience and a senior author of the paper.

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