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
Credit: cottonbro from Pexels
  • 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.

Massive 'Darth Vader' isopod found lurking in the Indian Ocean

The father of all giant sea bugs was recently discovered off the coast of Java.

A close up of Bathynomus raksasa

SJADE 2018
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  • A new species of isopod with a resemblance to a certain Sith lord was just discovered.
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Volcanoes to power bitcoin mining in El Salvador

The first nation to make bitcoin legal tender will use geothermal energy to mine it.

Credit: Aaron Thomas via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

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

In June 2021, El Salvador became the first nation in the world to make bitcoin legal tender. Soon after, President Nayib Bukele instructed a state-owned power company to provide bitcoin mining facilities with cheap, clean energy — harnessed from the country's volcanoes.

The challenge: Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency, a digital form of money and a payment system. Crypto has several advantages over physical dollars and cents — it's incredibly difficult to counterfeit, and transactions are more secure — but it also has a major downside.

Crypto transactions are recorded and new coins are added into circulation through a process called mining.

Crypto mining involves computers solving incredibly difficult mathematical puzzles. It is also incredibly energy-intensive — Cambridge University researchers estimate that bitcoin mining alone consumes more electricity every year than Argentina.

Most of that electricity is generated by carbon-emitting fossil fuels. As it stands, bitcoin mining produces an estimated 36.95 megatons of CO2 annually.

A world first: On June 9, El Salvador became the first nation to make bitcoin legal tender, meaning businesses have to accept it as payment and citizens can use it to pay taxes.

Less than a day later, Bukele tweeted that he'd instructed a state-owned geothermal electric company to put together a plan to provide bitcoin mining facilities with "very cheap, 100% clean, 100% renewable, 0 emissions energy."

Geothermal electricity is produced by capturing heat from the Earth itself. In El Salvador, that heat comes from volcanoes, and an estimated two-thirds of their energy potential is currently untapped.

Why it matters: El Salvador's decision to make bitcoin legal tender could be a win for both the crypto and the nation itself.

"(W)hat it does for bitcoin is further legitimizes its status as a potential reserve asset for sovereign and super sovereign entities," Greg King, CEO of crypto asset management firm Osprey Funds, told CBS News of the legislation.

Meanwhile, El Salvador is one of the poorest nations in North America, and bitcoin miners — the people who own and operate the computers doing the mining — receive bitcoins as a reward for their efforts.

"This is going to evolve fast!"
NAYIB BUKELE

If El Salvador begins operating bitcoin mining facilities powered by clean, cheap geothermal energy, it could become a global hub for mining — and receive a much-needed economic boost in the process.

The next steps: It remains to be seen whether Salvadorans will fully embrace bitcoin — which is notoriously volatile — or continue business-as-usual with the nation's other legal tender, the U.S. dollar.

Only time will tell if Bukele's plan for volcano-powered bitcoin mining facilities comes to fruition, too — but based on the speed of things so far, we won't have to wait long to find out.

Less than three hours after tweeting about the idea, Bukele followed up with another tweet claiming that the nation's geothermal energy company had already dug a new well and was designing a "mining hub" around it.

"This is going to evolve fast!" the president promised.

How Pfizer and BioNTech made history with their vaccine

How were mRNA vaccines developed? Pfizer's Dr Bill Gruber explains the science behind this record-breaking achievement and how it was developed without compromising safety.

How Pfizer and BioNTech made history with their vaccine
Sponsored by Pfizer
  • Wondering how Pfizer and partner BioNTech developed a COVID-19 vaccine in record time without compromising safety? Dr Bill Gruber, SVP of Pfizer Vaccine Clinical Research and Development, explains the process from start to finish.
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  • The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine has not been approved or licensed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but has been authorized for emergency use by FDA under an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) to prevent COVID-19 for use in individuals 12 years of age and older. The emergency use of this product is only authorized for the duration of the emergency declaration unless ended sooner. See Fact Sheet: cvdvaccine-us.com/recipients.

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