Hugh Pickens DOT Com writes: Chris Parnin has an interesting read about an international team of scientists lead by Dr. Janet Siegmund using brain imaging with fMRI to understand the programmer's mind and to compare and contrast different cognitive tasks used in programming by analyzing differences in brain locations that are activated by different tasks. One recent debate illuminated by their studies is recent legislation that considers offering foreign-language credits for students learning programming languages. There have been many strong reactions across the software-developer community. Some developers consider the effort laudable but misguided and proclaim programming is not at all like human language and is much closer to mathematics. Siegmund observed 17 participants inside an fMRI scanner while they were comprehending short source-code snippets and found a clear, distinct activation pattern of five brain regions, which are related to language processing, working memory, and attention. The programmers in the study recruited parts of the brain typically associated with language processing and verbal oriented processing (ventral lateral prefrontal cortex). At least for the simple code snippets presented, programmers could use existing language regions of the brain to understand code without requiring more complex mental models to be constructed and manipulated. "Interestingly, even though there was code that involve mathematical operations, conditionals, and loop iteration, for these particular tasks, programming had less in common with mathematics and more in common with language (PDF)," writes Parnin. "Mathematical calculations typically take place in the intraparietal sulcus, mathematical reasoning in the right frontal pole, and logical reasoning in the left frontal pole. These areas were not strongly activated in comprehending source code." The new research results are a much needed, but only a first step in revealing the neuroscience of programming. Other questions remain including: Can we finally provide a neurological basis for a programmer's flow? How relevant is the mastery of language skills for programming? Are there certain programming activities that should never be mixed, due to higher chance of cognitive failure (and resulting bugs)? Do code visualizations or live programming environments really reduce mental load? "Programming involves a rich set of cognitive processes," concludes Parnin. "Although the study found a particular pathway that was strongly associated with language processing, there may be other pathways associated with other common activities related to programming (debugging, editing, refactoring, etc)."
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