How do programmers think while programming

Your programmer - the unknown being

How do programmers think? The answer not only affects Europe as a business location. Because it decides whether companies will still have what it takes to become innovation leaders tomorrow or whether they will slip into nobodies. At Volkswagen, the answer is currently deciding on the launch of ID.3. Because it is software problems that are causing the newcomer with the modular electric drive kit, or MEB for short, to collect dust on the farm at the moment.

Not onlySven Apel and his team therefore finally want to know what is going on in the minds of software developers: "Our goal was to develop a new approach so that we can better understand the cognitive processes that take place in programming." Saarland University was the first scientist in the world to borrow an imaging method from neuroscience, functional magnetic resonance tomography, to make the brain activity of programmers visible while they analyze complicated lines of code. What is going on in their minds at these moments? Which mysterious areas of the brain are used when reading and understanding computer programs?

The equation "programmer = MINT = math-gifted = highly active right hemisphere" is therefore wrong. The recently tried skills for recruiting new IT colleagues were a shot in the oven. Apel and his team discovered that the same brain regions are active when programming as when processing natural language.

Does programming training have to be rethought?

The image data clearly show that the left hemisphere of the brain was activated in the test participants. It is primarily associated with understanding language. Apel was also surprised: "We could not observe any activity in the direction of mathematical or logical thinking." It is rather obvious, according to Apel, "that the understanding of language plays a central role in programming".

It's not that new. The Dutch computer scientist already suspected this in the 1980s Edsger W. Dijkstra this connection. The programming language - is it a language rather than a computer? This knowledge could revolutionize programming: Does the programming language need a grammar, a new design? Does programming training have to be rethought? Or: What actually complicates a program code, what simplifies it?
There is no doubt about the scientific method used by Apel and his team. The subtraction method has proven itself in neuroscience: the test subjects first worked on a task in the magnetic resonance tomograph, for the solution of which they had to understand a program code excerpt. After a short break, you should check a snippet of code for simple syntax errors - a routine task for programmers. This process was repeated several times and then the images of the brain activity while working on the routine task were subtracted from the images of the comprehension test. What remains are the brain regions that are of particular importance for the process of program understanding.

What is the difference between programming experts and beginners?

The research design developed by Apel has since been taken up by other research groups worldwide and expanded to include additional aspects. The Saarbrücken computer scientist assumes that the research results could also feed back into neuroscience: It is conceivable that completely new cognitive processes will be discovered and redefine reading comprehension and logical reasoning.

Apel and his team are already working on the next problem: They now want to find out how experts and beginners understand the program differently. Do they read and interpret program codes in very different ways?

The scientists recently published the results of their basic research in the renowned monthly specialist journal Communications of the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery). It is published by the world's largest IT association.