‘English’ or math? How does the brain understand computational codes?

In 2016, Gallup Poll, an opinion polling firm in the United States, set out to understand what the expectations of schools in the United States were about teaching computer science to their students. From a survey, it revealed that 66% of the directors of institutions of fundamental years wished to incorporate subjects related to the area in their curricula.

Even with such an expressive interest, clarifications regarding the most effective approach to structuring classes are necessary. For example, where do the codes fit, in linguistics or mathematics?

To unravel the mystery, neuroscientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) decided to analyze how the human brain behaves while volunteers read codes, assuming that there are currently two currents of thought.

What prevails is that which states that coding is a type of language, with its own grammatical and syntactic rules that must be followed. For example, in Texas, Oklahoma and Georgia (all in the US), students can use computer science to complete required foreign language workloads.

In turn, the second defends the presence of matter in the field of numbers, since formulas and algorithms would spearhead the generation of results from the insertion of information.

Due to the recent presence of such content in humanity, there was not enough time for the brain to have developed a region especially dedicated to dealing with them. Therefore, it certainly “lends” skills already used in the execution of other tasks. The question is: which one does the organ take advantage of? Researchers respond.

“The ability to interpret computer code is a remarkable cognitive skill that has parallels with several cognitive domains, including general executive functions, mathematics, logic and language.”

In other words, in this unprecedented configuration, the brain selects consolidated capacities and mixes them to find solutions – something relatively new and that tends to become more and more common.

Where do computer codes fit into school curricula?Where do computer codes fit into school curricula?Source: Unsplash

“What do you want to do tonight?”

Undergoing the technique of functional magnetic resonance, people proficient in coding, during the experiment, faced problems and should provide solutions. Meanwhile, the scientists closely followed the brain activities of the “guinea pigs”. Known for their readability, Python and ScratchJr were selected for testing.

In one of the proposals, written in Python or in the phrase “normal”, based on information about height and weight, the requirement was to calculate the body mass index (BMI). In the other, in ScratchJr, tracking the position of a cat as it walks and jumps.

Before, memorizing a sequence of squares in a grid and reading a normal and meaningless sentence “warmed up the engines”, all to activate the participants’ multiple demand system (usually activated by complex cognitive tasks, such as solving mathematical calculations) and language calculations, respectively.

Then, the surprise: the understanding of the codes was made possible mainly by the multiple demand network, which did not occur during the search for the answer to the problems. The brain does not address codes like language or logic. It seems to be a thing of its own.

Brain reacts unexpectedly when facing computational problems.Brain reacts unexpectedly when facing computational problems.Source: Unsplash

“The same thing we do every night, Pink …”

One of the assumptions for the “laziness” of the brain’s language system, point out the neuroscientists, is the absence of the activation of speech or hearing in the processes, which dispenses its actions even with all the similarities of codes with natural languages.

In addition, the multiple demand network, roughly divided between left (logic) and right (abstract thinking) of the organ, behaved differently depending on the case: reading the Python code seems to activate both sides, while ScratchJr “turned on” the right side a little more than the left.

Finally, an experiment carried out by Japanese researchers last year showed that activity in the brain regions associated with natural language processing, recovery of episodic memory and attention control also strengthened with the programmer’s skill level – suggesting that despite Since code languages ​​seem to be distinguished from natural ones, starting to learn them early enhances the development of capabilities.

Considering that the new world generation of computer science professionals is expected to jump from 23.9 million in 2019 to 28.7 million in 2024, according to Statista, a German company specializing in market and consumer data, it is good that those who want to accompany the movement start moving now.

Conquering the world, as some drawings show, is not simple – but that the brain tries to find a way, well, that yes.

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