Relating Reading, Visualization, and Coding for New Programmers: A Neuroimaging Study
Understanding how novices reason about coding at a neurological level has implications for training the next generation of software engineers. In recent years, medical imaging has been increasingly employed to investigate patterns of neural activity associated with coding activity. However, such studies have focused on advanced undergraduates and professionals. In a human study of 31 participants, we use functional near-infrared spectroscopy to measure the neural activity associated with introductory programming. In a controlled, contrast-based experiment, we relate brain activity when coding to that of reading natural language or mentally rotating objects (a spatial visualization task). % Our primary result is that all three tasks—coding, prose reading, and mental rotation—are mentally distinct for novices. % However, while those tasks are neurally distinct, we find more significant differences between prose and coding than between mental rotation and coding. % Intriguingly, we generally find more activation in areas of the brain associated with spatial ability and task difficulty for novice coding compared to that reported in studies with more expert developers. % Finally, in an exploratory analysis, we also find a neural activation pattern predictive of performance weeks later. % While preliminary, these findings both expand on previous results (e.g., relating expertise to a similarity between coding and prose reading) and also provide a new understanding of the cognitive processes underlying novice programming.