What goes on in your brain when you read and understand code?
Within the last few years, high-resolution medical imaging technologies have grown in popularity for research in software engineering in general and program comprehension in particular. New approaches such function magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) complement more established approaches such as eye tracking and electroencephalograms (EEG), helping us to augment unreliable or subjective self-reporting with more objective measures of the neurobiological correlates of software engineering. This keynote summarizes recent exciting results using such techniques, from multiple authors, contrasting them to more traditional studies. We highlight the “game changing” areas of program comprehension that can be more rigorously targeted with these approaches (including expertise, efficiency, and problem difficulty, among others). We also lay out a number of the challenges associated with such studies (including experimental design, statistical analysis, regulatory compliance, reproducibility, and cost, among others). We conclude with a call to arms, surveying compelling ideas and experiments from psychology that have not yet been applied to program comprehension research.
Wes Weimer is a professor at the University of Michigan. His main research interests include static, dynamic, and medical imaging-based techniques to improve program quality, fix defects, and understand how humans engineer software. He received a BA degree in computer science and mathematics from Cornell and MS and PhD degrees from Berkeley. He is an ACM Senior Member and his work at ICSE, POPL and ASPLOS has received ten-year impact awards.