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After much procrastination, I am finally posting the results of my research into how the frequent use of computer programming languages affect the brain.

As followers of the blog will remember, after reading theories about how learning languages affect the brain, I wanted to know whether computer programming languages also affected the brain. With a few notable exceptions (e.g. Murnane, 1993) most research about the cognitive effects of computer programming seemed to have focused on programming as a problem solving rather than a linguistic activity. If computer languages were indeed languages, I thought that it would make sense for them to affect the brain in a similar way to other languages.

This is quite a big subject, so I honed in on bilingualism. If computer programming languages are languages, then people who spoke one language and could programme to a high standard should be bilingual. Research has suggested that bilingual people perform faster than monolingual people at tasks requiring executive control – that is, tasks involving the ability to pay attention to important information and ignore irrelevant information (for a review of the “robust” evidence for this, see Hilchey & Klein, 2011). So, I set out to find out whether computer programmers were better at these tasks too. It is thought that the bilingual advantage is the result of the effort involved in keeping two languages separate in the brain and deciding which one to use. I noticed that novice computer programmers have difficulty in controlling “transfer” from English to programming languages (e.g. expecting the command “while” to imply continuous checking; see Soloway and Spohrer, 1989), so it seemed plausible that something similar might occur through the learning of programming languages.

Obviously, lots of bilingual people learn two languages from birth, and – young as some of them might be – this is clearly not the case for computer programmers. However, the effect has also been found in bilingual people who gained a second language in adolescence (Tao et al., 2011). Therefore, I compared 10 adolescent programmers (aged 14-17) and 10 professional programmers who had been programming since adolescence (aged 21-25) to age matched controls. All participants were monolingual English speakers.

I used two computer-based tests – Stroop and attention networks task – which required participants to pay attention to one thing and ignore others. Unfortunately, I made an error in setting up the Stroop test, so I can’t be sure that data is reliable. However, data from the attention networks task showed that computer programmers performed this task faster than controls and the difference between the two groups was significant (note that “significant” means that we are more than 95% sure that the results didn’t happen by chance – it doesn’t mean there was a big difference in reaction times). Error rates did not differ significantly.

This was only a very small study and I’d be reluctant to make any grand claims based on it; the results would need to be replicated by other studies. Even if other studies did support these findings, it doesn’t necessarily mean that computer programming experience causes better executive control; it might be that people with better executive control are more likely to persist with computer programming. If the latter is true, one way to help people learn computer programming might be to teach them a foreign language first. I did notice that a lot of programmers seemed to be bilingual – I think it would be interesting to do a survey to see if that is supported by hard facts.

Anyway, if you’re interested in picking apart the detail, you can download the full report here. If you do manage to struggle through, let me know what you think – random theories welcome! I’d love it if it gave people ideas for bigger studies. Huge thanks to everyone who took part and to all those who helped, especially the team at Young Rewired State. I couldn’t have done it without you all.

My project to find out whether computer programming languages affect the brain is slowly coming together. The best news is that I’ve got my hands on a very quick version of an IQ test, which can be administered in 15 minutes, which means that I can cut the whole experiment down from 50 to 30 minutes in total. Hopefully that will make it even easier for people to take part.

As a reminder, I’m looking for young coders in these age groups:

  • 8-11 year olds who have been coding regularly for at least 6 months
  • 14-16 year olds who have been coding for at least 3 years
  • 21-25 year old professionals who have been coding for 8 years or more

Any programming language is OK, but it’s important that you are not bilingual (read the information sheet for details).  Here’s what taking part will involve:

Taking part in the experiment

  • We can do this at your home, or meet you at one of 2 locations in central London (either my university or my place of work, which is a children’s charity)
  • Taking part will take 30 minutes. I’ll schedule a time to suit you.
  • First we’ll do a short IQ test – this is only so that I can make sure that the people I compare you to (who are not coders) have roughly the same IQ
  • Then we’ll run the experiment on a laptop. It’s pretty simple, you just have to respond to what you see on the screen, as quickly and accurately as possible.

I’m hoping to complete all of the experiments by the end of April, so that I can then recruit and test a control group. If you’ve already signed up, I’ll be in touch with suggested times very soon.

If you run computer clubs for kids or just know young people who fit the bill, please point ‘em my way or get in touch.

As I’ve written before, I’m interested to find out whether regularly using computer programming languages change the brain in the same way that being bilingual does. The good news is that I’ve now had ethics approval to run a small experiment to find out – and I’m looking for children, teenagers and adults to take part.

First up, I’m looking for three small groups of developers, ideally London-ish-based (because I don’t have any funding and I’m a student so massive train fares aren’t really an option):

  • 8 – 11 year olds who have been programming regularly for at least 6 months
  • 14 – 16 year olds who have been programming regularly for 3 – 6 years
  • 21 – 25 year old professional programmers who have been programming for at least 8 years and programme at least 5 days a week

Unfortunately, if you are bilingual – in that you speak two or more languages most days, for example, a different language at home than at school or work – you can’t take part in the study. This is because we already know that the effect we are looking for is found in bilinguals – so if we found it in you, we wouldn’t know whether this was because you programme computers or because you are bilingual (or both!).

To sign up as a developer, please read this information sheet about the project and sign up here (or if you are under 18, please get a parent or guardian to do so on your behalf). Massive thanks to Josh and Emma at Young Rewired State for helping me to contact young coders (they’re fundraising at the moment, you should help if you can!).

Secondly, I am looking for control group participants who are not computer programmers and am not bilingual. If you are an education professional or someone else who can help me to access a group of children aged 8-11 and or 14-16 in London, I’d love to hear from you – you could leave a comment or mail me here: hwright04 AT ioe.ac.uk.

I’m pretty excited that this is actually happening, thank you to everyone who has helped so far (especially Paul, Duncan and Alex for letting me pick their rather substantial brains). As always if anyone has any suggestions about papers I should read or people I should talk to, I’m all ears.

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