Researchers at MIT showed how coding activates the multiple demand network in our brain. Subjects were tested on their comprehension of Python and ScratchJr. (Image credit: MIT)


Some describe coding is like learning a new language. Others think it’s closer to solving mathematical problems. A new MIT study shows that it’s actually something else. Researchers at MIT have found that reading computer code activates a distributed network called the multiple demand network, which is used for complex cognitive tasks like solving math problems or crossword puzzles.


So that means it’s like how our brain process math problems? Not exactly. Though reading computer code activates the multiple demand network, it relies on different parts of the network than math or puzzles do. This network spreads throughout the frontal and parietal lobes of the brain. It’s usually reserved for tasks that require retaining many pieces of information at once and is responsible for our ability to perform various mental tasks.


“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,” says Anna Ivanova, an MIT graduate student and the lead author of the study.


To get to this conclusion, the team conducted brain scans of young adults tested on their comprehension of Python and ScratchJr, a visual programming language designed for children age 5 and older. The scans showed little to no response to code in the language regions of the brain. Rather, they saw coding activated the previously mentioned multiple demand network.


Though researchers didn’t find regions of the brain exclusively devoted to coding, they believe specialized brain activity could develop in people who have more coding experience.


“It’s possible that if you take people who are professional programmers, who have spent 30 or 40 years coding in a particular language, you may start seeing some specialization, or some crystallization of parts of the multiple demand system,” Fedorenko says. “In people who are familiar with coding and can efficiently do these tasks, but have had relatively limited experience, it just doesn’t seem like you see any specialization yet.”


MIT’s research suggests coding and programming can’t be categorized strictly as a math-based or language-based skill since it could rely on both language and multiple demand systems. When it comes to teaching coding, educators will have to create their own method for learning purposes.


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