Is computer code a language or math? MIT study uses brain scans for answers

How our brains interpret computer code could impact how we teach it.

Is computer code a language or math? MIT study uses brain scans for answers
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  • Computer coding is a relatively new skill, so our brains can't have specialized areas for it from birth.
  • The question of how we process computer code, as a language or as math, could impact how we teach the subject.
  • A new MIT study suggests our brains treat it as its own special topic.

The comparison between computers and the human brain is hard to get away from. It is often a useful analogy, but sometimes conflicts with how our brains actually work.

One of the continuing questions about how our brains are similar or dissimilar to computers is how they process code. Do we process it as if it is a language or a series of math problems? This question is important for a number of reasons. From an educational standpoint, knowing how our brains work when dealing with coding problems could provide insights into how to teach it.

Some schools are beginning to allow students to select coding languages for a "foreign" language credit and are approaching the subject in the same way they might teach French. This might be a decent way to get more students into coding but could backfire if reliance on language learning techniques is misplaced, for example. Likewise, attempts to teach coding as math might be equally mistaken.

To help settle the debate, a new study analyzed the brain activity of computer programmers while they read code.

"Programs must be written for people to read, and only incidentally for machines to execute." - Harold Abelson.

The study, carried out by a team from MIT and Tufts University, had two dozen participants read code, English, and logic puzzles while in an fMRI machine. By seeing which parts of the brain lit up while doing these tasks, the researchers could determine how our brains process coding languages.

If the areas of the brain associated with language processing were to light up, then we treat code like we treat languages. The same would go for the math parts. The control tasks, reading either a real sentence or a nonsense one and memorizing the location of colored squares, demonstrated the baseline activation levels for these systems in each subject.

The coding languages used in the study were Python, a language considered highly readable by many, and ScratchJr, a symbolic picture code designed for children.

An example of the code and puzzles that might be seen in the experiment. ​

Credit: MIT

When the subjects were in the machine, they were asked to work through the code and predict the output. The brain scans showed only limited responses in the brain's language processing centers, but a considerable amount in the multiple demand (MD) system, which often handles math, logic, and executive tasks.

While this may sound like a win for the "coding is math" argument, it isn't quite the slam dunk you might think it is. This system handles most of our "difficult" thinking and is useful for many things. Logic and math typically cause the left half of it to fire up while the right half handles abstract thinking.

Working with Python caused both sides of the system to activate. ScractchJr worked the right side a little more than the left.

What does this mean?

These findings suggest that the brain handles coding as a unique and complex process. As lead author Anna Ivanova put it: "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."

The authors note that this does not rule out the possibility that very experienced programmers might have specially dedicated areas of the brain for coding. It also doesn't settle what the right way to learn the subject is; it could be the case that learning it requires elements from both pedagogues.

Are there any limits to the study?

This study was very small, it only involved about twenty people, and all of them had knowledge of the coding language they were tested with. The codes used are noted for their readability, and the results may differ if future test subjects without coding knowledge are trying to decipher something like Piet.

Despite these limitations, the study does provide helpful information about how the brain handles coding languages. It will undoubtedly be the first of many investigations into this topic.

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China's "artificial sun" sets new record for fusion power

China has reached a new record for nuclear fusion at 120 million degrees Celsius.

Credit: STR via Getty Images
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

China wants to build a mini-star on Earth and house it in a reactor. Many teams across the globe have this same bold goal --- which would create unlimited clean energy via nuclear fusion.

But according to Chinese state media, New Atlas reports, the team at the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) has set a new world record: temperatures of 120 million degrees Celsius for 101 seconds.

Yeah, that's hot. So what? Nuclear fusion reactions require an insane amount of heat and pressure --- a temperature environment similar to the sun, which is approximately 150 million degrees C.

If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it.

If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it. In nuclear fusion, the extreme heat and pressure create a plasma. Then, within that plasma, two or more hydrogen nuclei crash together, merge into a heavier atom, and release a ton of energy in the process.

Nuclear fusion milestones: The team at EAST built a giant metal torus (similar in shape to a giant donut) with a series of magnetic coils. The coils hold hot plasma where the reactions occur. They've reached many milestones along the way.

According to New Atlas, in 2016, the scientists at EAST could heat hydrogen plasma to roughly 50 million degrees C for 102 seconds. Two years later, they reached 100 million degrees for 10 seconds.

The temperatures are impressive, but the short reaction times, and lack of pressure are another obstacle. Fusion is simple for the sun, because stars are massive and gravity provides even pressure all over the surface. The pressure squeezes hydrogen gas in the sun's core so immensely that several nuclei combine to form one atom, releasing energy.

But on Earth, we have to supply all of the pressure to keep the reaction going, and it has to be perfectly even. It's hard to do this for any length of time, and it uses a ton of energy. So the reactions usually fizzle out in minutes or seconds.

Still, the latest record of 120 million degrees and 101 seconds is one more step toward sustaining longer and hotter reactions.

Why does this matter? No one denies that humankind needs a clean, unlimited source of energy.

We all recognize that oil and gas are limited resources. But even wind and solar power --- renewable energies --- are fundamentally limited. They are dependent upon a breezy day or a cloudless sky, which we can't always count on.

Nuclear fusion is clean, safe, and environmentally sustainable --- its fuel is a nearly limitless resource since it is simply hydrogen (which can be easily made from water).

With each new milestone, we are creeping closer and closer to a breakthrough for unlimited, clean energy.

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