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Team of  programmers working on new project.They working late at night at the office.
Team of programmers working on new project.They working late at night at the office.

Does Programming Depend More on Math or Language Skills?

Neither, actually, say researchers. It’s a more global network

Researchers have discovered that learning to code software uses not just math or language skills but rather a broader region of the brain called the “multiple demand network,” which is active when we are solving complex problems:

“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.

Anne Trafton, “To the brain, reading computer code is not the same as reading language” at MIT News Paper. (open access) (December 15, 2020)

Neuroscientist Evelina Fedorenko, another of the study’s authors, says that there are two schools of thought regarding programming: One is, you must be good at math and the other is, you must be good at language. When they tested the theories on young adults, asked to identify code while having their brains scanned via fMRI, they found:

The researchers saw little to no response to code in the language regions of the brain. Instead, they found that the coding task mainly activated the so-called multiple demand network. This network, whose activity is spread throughout the frontal and parietal lobes of the brain, is typically recruited for tasks that require holding many pieces of information in mind at once, and is responsible for our ability to perform a wide variety of mental tasks …

Previous studies have shown that math and logic problems seem to rely mainly on the multiple demand regions in the left hemisphere, while tasks that involve spatial navigation activate the right hemisphere more than the left. The MIT team found that reading computer code appears to activate both the left and right sides of the multiple demand network, and ScratchJr activated the right side slightly more than the left. This finding goes against the hypothesis that math and coding rely on the same brain mechanisms.

Anne Trafton, “To the brain, reading computer code is not the same as reading language” at MIT News Paper. (open access) (December 15, 2020)

So, if you want to learn to code, should you study math? Yes. Should you study language: Yes. Should you study any subject that causes you to use a wide variety of mental skills? Yes!

It turns out that success just means learning to solve whatever problems actually exist. And a broad variety of brain regions helps us do so.


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Does Programming Depend More on Math or Language Skills?