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Communications of the ACM


Studying Programming in the Neuroage: Just a Crazy Idea?

body in MRI-like scanner, illustration

Credit: Jackie Niam

This is a crazy idea," the review read. Closing my laptop lid, I added in my mind "and ... it will never work," as a lump welled in my throat. What we were proposing to do was simple yet ambitious. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we might better understand what goes on in the minds of programmers as they read and understand code. We had performed pilot experiments with a neurobiologist, had promising results, and encouraging words from colleagues and reviewers. Still, the words, "this is a crazy idea," echoed in our minds. Would it be possible to break open the stale progress in program comprehension research? After all, researchers have been working on understanding programmers since the 1970s. Could neuroimaging really help devising a conclusive and comprehensive theory of program comprehension?

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The Waves of Program Comprehension Research

Research in program comprehension has been a cycle of booms and busts. In the early 1970s and 1980s, the first wave of researchers were psychologists, using methods, such as memory recall, to probe how programmers represent and process code in their mind. As a result, various theories and mechanisms were proposed, such as programming plans and bottom-up comprehension, but no clear consensus and only few impulses for programming research (including research on programming methodology, language design, or education) emerged.


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