To the brain, reading computer code is not the same as reading language

Avatar of Geoff Graham
Geoff Graham on

Learn Development at Frontend Masters

One of the things I do when teaching beginning front-end development is ask students to describe what it’s like to read HTML. I give them pretty basic markup for a long-form article, and ask them to read it twice: first in the code, then on the front end.

The #1 common response I hear? It’s like learning a new language.

Of course it is, I tell them. It’s in the name: Hypertext Markup Language. So, I advise them to start treating the materials in the course like they’re learning French, Spanish, or any other language.

Then I wake up this morning and see this MIT study that reading computer code is not the same as reading language, even though they share similarities.

In spite of those similarities, MIT neuroscientists have found that reading computer code does not activate the regions of the brain that are involved in language processing. Instead, it activates a distributed network called the multiple demand network, which is also recruited for complex cognitive tasks such as solving math problems or crossword puzzles.

Duh, you might say. But wait, reading code actually appears to activate additional parts of the multiple demand network that make the task more or a near-match to mathematical reasoning than the exact same thing.

The MIT team found that reading computer code appears to activate both the left and right sides of the multiple demand network […]. This finding goes against the hypothesis that math and coding rely on the same brain mechanisms.

So, back to my HTML reading assignment. Is it better to teach code as a language for recognizing symbols that communicate to the browser what to do, or as a math skill that’s based on solving problems?

The answer is 🤷‍♂️.

The most interesting thing about the study to me is not how to teach code, but rather how how I work with it. Chris always says a front-end developer is aware, and the fact that reading code taps on a region of the brain that’s responsible for handling multi-tasking and holding lots of information only supports that. It also explains why I personally get annoyed when I’m pulled away from my code or distracted from it—it’s like my brain has to drop all the plates it was balancing to pay attention to something else, then pick up and reassemble all the pieces before I can jump back in to what I was doing.