Are you a Programmer? Then you Probably have a Bilingual Brain

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One of the advantages of speaking two languages is an increased ability to filter in the important information and ignore the irrelevant one. Turns out that coders can do the same, better.

As someone struggling with learning a new language, the issue of noise vs meaning is a dreadfully familiar one. Everything that comes to my ears sounds absolutely relevant, but I know that in between all the noise lies the secret to the speaker’s intention. Just trying to figure out which keywords to hold on to exhausts me.

Observing the way experts and non-experts (me!) perform their regular tasks is something that has given neuroscientists all kids of enjoyment. Surprisingly, when a new activity is mastered, it’s several different regions of the brain that get called to perform. Sometimes those regions are even increased in mass, for example videogame players show a larger right posterior parietal cortex (I’m not kidding). Now, when you place a programmer inside an fMRI machine, the story changes, slightly.

Programmers, while reading and comprehending short code snippets, have a distinct activation of five areas in the brain which relate to language processing, attention and working memory. Contrary to the belief that coding has more to do with mathematics than any other discipline, they were using only existing language regions of the brain to process the snippets.

This opens the door to a myriad of fascinating questions: What happens if a kid starts programming from an early age, would their brains be shaped (and shape can be applied literally here) differently? Can we predict whether someone will be an excellent programmer? Do all programming tasks light up the same regions? And if you suck at learning languages, does it mean you should think twice before pursuing a career in programming?

Suddenly, as a whole, my inability to code complex pieces and my difficulties with learning German make a huge lot of sense.

Photo Attribute: CC, Marissa Anderson

Anthropologist & User Experience Designer. I write about science and technology. Robot whisperer. VR enthusiast. Gamer. @yisela_at

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