Expert computer programmers have a higher degree of expertise in some behavioral and focus skills than their beginner peers. In order to classify the responsible brain areas, the scientists used fMRI to examine the brain functions of 30 programmers of varying ability levels, discovering that seven regions of the frontal, parietal and temporal cortex in the brains of expert programmers have been fine-tuned for programming. The results could provide improved approaches and opportunities for anyone to study programming.
Non-coders often associate programming with math, but researchers have used fMRI readings to discover a potential link to the language processing centers of our brains.
Countries around the world are seeing a rise in the number of students in computer science. Enrolment of similar university programs in the U.S. and Canada has tripled since 2006-2016 and Europe has also seen growing figures. Around the same time, the age to start coding is getting younger and younger, so policymakers in several countries are promoting K-12 in computer science education. Despite the growing prevalence of computer programming, little is understood about how our minds are responding to this relatively new practice.
A recent study by researchers in Japan looked at the brain function of thirty programmers with differing degrees of experience, discovering that seven areas of the frontal, parietal and temporal cortex in the brain of experienced programmers have been fine-tuned for programming. The results indicate that higher programming abilities are based on fine-tuned brain function in a network of different brain regions.
In order to train the workforce to satisfy demand, people are starting to wonder how we categorize programming skills. “Many studies have reported differences between expert and novice programmers in behavioral performance, knowledge structure, and selective attention. What we don’t know is where in the brain these differences emerge,” says Takatomi Kubo, associate professor at the Nara Institute of Science and Technology, Japan, and one of the leading authors of the research.
The researchers studied classes of novices, seasoned and expert programmers to address this query. The programmers displayed 72 separate code snippets when studying the usable MRI (fMRI) and asked to put each snippet in one of four functional groups. As predicted, programmers with higher skills would have been better at categorizing excerpts correctly.
Subsequent searchlight research showed that the volume of information in seven brain regions was increased by the ability level of the programmer: bilateral inferior frontal gyrus pars triangularis (IFG Tri), left inferior parietal lobule (IPL), left supramarginal gyrus (SMG), left middle and lower temporal gyrus (MTG/IT) and right middle frontal gyrus (MTG/IT) (MFG).
“Identifying these characteristics in expert programmers’ brains offers a good starting point for understanding the cognitive mechanisms behind programming expertise. Our findings illuminate the potential set of cognitive functions constituting programming expertise,” Kubo says.
More precisely, the left IFG Tri and MTG are considered to be correlated with natural language processing and, in particular, with the goal-oriented retrieval of semantic information. The left IPL and SMG are correlated with the recovery of episodic memory. The right MFG and IFG Tri are functionally linked to stimulus-driven attention management. Considering that communication and people’s skills are essential skills for software developers, and given that “language” is part of the term “programming language,” it should come as no surprise that the brains’ language centers were triggered when a FMRI analysis of computer science students’ brains while reading source code.
“Programming is a relatively new activity in human history and the mechanism is largely unknown. Connecting the activity to other well-known human cognitive functions will improve our understanding of programming expertise. If we get the more comprehensive theory about programming expertise, it will lead to better methods for learning and teaching computer programming,” Kubo says.