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Link: To the brain, reading computer code is not the same as reading language | MIT News | Massachusetts Institute of Technology

In some ways, learning to program a computer is similar to learning a new language. It requires learning new symbols and terms, which must be organized correctly to instruct the computer what to do. The computer code must also be clear enough that other programmers can read and understand it. In spite of those similarities, MIT neuroscientists have found that reading computer code does not activate the regions of the brain that are involved in language processing. Instead, it activates a distributed network called the multiple demand network, which is also recruited for complex cognitive tasks such as solving math problems or crossword puzzles. However, although reading computer code activates the multiple demand network, it appears to rely more on different parts of the network than math or logic problems do, suggesting that coding does not precisely replicate the cognitive demands of mathematics either. “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,” says Anna Ivanova, an MIT graduate student and the lead author of the study. The researchers saw little to no response to code in the language regions of the brain. Instead, they found that the coding task mainly activated the so-called multiple demand network. This network, whose activity is spread throughout the frontal and parietal lobes of the brain, is typically recruited for tasks that require holding many pieces of information in mind at once, and is responsible for our ability to perform a wide variety of mental tasks. “It does pretty much anything that’s cognitively challenging, that makes you think hard,” Ivanova says. Previous studies have shown that math and logic problems seem to rely mainly on the multiple demand regions in the left hemisphere, while tasks that involve spatial navigation activate the right hemisphere more than the left. Working with Marina Bers, a professor of child study and human development at Tufts University, the MIT team found that reading computer code appears to activate both the left and right sides of the multiple demand network, and ScratchJr activated the right side slightly more than the left. #


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