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What's the link between language and programming in the brain

Siegmund et al (2014) were the first to empirically investigate the link between programming and other cognitive domains, such as language processing, at least using modern neuroimaging methods. They used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) which measures changes in local blood oxygenation, as a result of brain activity in different networks across the brain. Undergraduate students of computer science were scanned while reading code snippets for comprehension and while reading similar code, looking for syntax errors without comprehension. The results showed activation in the classical language networks, including activation in Broca's, Wernicke's and Geschwind's territories, more in the left hemisphere.

The code was made to enhance so called bottom-up comprehension, which means reading and understanding expression by expression and line by line, rather than browsing the overall structure of the code. This process can be compared to language processes such as clipping words together, according to syntax, to arrive at a coherent sentence meaning (as well as connection meaning across sentences in discourse). It is possible, and has been suggested in the computer science literature on the skill set needed to be a good programmer (Dijkstra, 1982), that people master their native language well are also more efficient software developers. A mechanistic explanation could be the strength of the connections between the mentioned brain regions, which changes from person to person. In summary, similar brain networks are found for programming and language comprehension.

Answer by: Julia Udden, Harald Hammarström and Rick Jansen


Siegmund, J., Kästner, C., Apel, S., Parnin, C., Bethmann, A., Leich, T., Saake, G. & Brechmann, A. (2014) Understanding Source Code with Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging. In Proceedings of the ACM/IEEE International Conference on Software Engineering (ICSE).

Dijkstra. How Do We Tell Truths that Might Hurt? In Selected Writings on Computing: A Personal Perspective, 129–131. Springer, 1982.

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This is the MPI

The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

The institute is situated on the campus of the Radboud University. We participate in the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, and have particularly close ties to that institute's Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging. We also participate in the Centre for Language Studies. A joint graduate school, the IMPRS in Language Sciences, links the Donders Institute, the CLS and the MPI.

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