Brains On Code: EU funding in the millions for pioneering research on brain activity during program comprehension

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Sven Apel, professor of computer science at Saarland University. Photo: Oliver Dietze

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What goes on in the minds of programmers when they think about program code? Understanding this is important, because it could influence many aspects of modern software development – for example, programming education or the design of programming languages. Sven Apel, Computer Science professor at Saarland University, now receives an “Advanced Grant” from the European Research Council (ERC) for his research on this question and will be funded with about 2.5 million euros over the next five years.

“Basically, we are working on understanding the process of program comprehension,” explains computer science professor Sven Apel. The EU-funded research project is about using a multimodal and interdisciplinary approach to determine, through various neurophysiological measurement methods, which mental processes take place when reading and understanding program code. This way, the project aims at understanding which key factors influence these processes and at developing a theory and models to simulate and thus optimize these comprehension processes.

In addition to Professor Sven Apel, who is receiving the EU funding, other key research partners are involved in the project: Expertise in the field of neuroscience comes from Dr. André Brechmann, who conducts research at the Leibniz Institute for Neurobiology in Magdeburg. Furthermore, Janet Siegmund, Professor of Software Engineering at Chemnitz University of Technology, is also significantly involved.

But why is such an effort put into deciphering the cognitive steps involved in program comprehension? “If we know what cognitive processes are involved, we will be a big step closer to finding answers to very fundamental questions about programming: What makes programming code easy and what makes it difficult, good and bad, comprehensible and confusing? What skills does a good programmer need? How can these skills be trained in education? And, as a result, how can we make software safer, more reliable and more efficient,” explains Sven Apel.

Specifically, the research team is using multidisciplinary and multimodal methods to tackle the question: “Our approach uses methods from neurology, psychology and computer science,” says Sven Apel. Using experiments that combine various imaging techniques from the neurosciences, the researchers want to investigate, for example, which brain areas are activated during program comprehension (fMRI), how strong the activation of these areas is and how quickly it occurs (EEG), and in which order the research participants read the code presented to them (eye tracking). “This way, we want to open the ‘black box‘, which is the programmer, and gain insight into the internal, cognitive processes during program comprehension,” Apel explains.

The team of researchers around Apel, Brechmann and Siegmund pioneered this experimental setup and have already used it in past, highly recognized studies. For example, the team has already been able to show that program comprehension mainly activates the language region in the brain and, contrary to expectations, not the parts of the brain responsible for logical and mathematical reasoning. “Our experimental setup has now been adopted by numerous groups around the world. With the new funding, it is possible for us to expand our leading role in this field,” says Sven Apel.

Based on the results of these experiments, the researchers want to develop a “digital twin” of the program comprehension process in two steps. First, a predictive theory is to be developed that can make reliable predictions about the processes involved in program comprehension and contains verifiable assumptions. Using this theory, the scientists want to develop a “cognitive model”, in which they can turn the various knobs of the comprehension process, such as program complexity or the activation of certain brain regions, in order to be able to simulate comprehension processes for questions not carried out in experiments (using the ACT-R method). Based on these findings, the researchers aim at providing answers to fundamental questions of programming methodology, language design, and programming education.

The project, entitled “Brains On Code: A Neuroscientific Foundation of Program Comprehension” is funded with an “Advanced Grant” from the European Research Council (ERC) with around 2.5 million euros over five years. ERC Advanced Grants are among the most prestigious research grants worldwide. For the current funding period, a total of 1735 projects were submitted, of which only 253 were approved. The research project described is the seventh ERC Advanced Grant and the 30th funding award of the European Research Council that was awarded for a project at the Saarland Informatics Campus. There, Sven Apel holds the Chair of Software Engineering in the Faculty of Mathematics and Computer Science at Saarland University.


More Information:

Questions can be directed at:

 Prof. Dr. Sven Apel
Chair of Software Engineering
Saarland University
Saarland Informatics Campus
Tel: +49 681 302 57211


Background Saarland Informatics Campus:
900 scientists (including 400 PhD students) and about 2100 students from more than 80 nations make the Saarland Informatics Campus (SIC) one of the leading locations for computer science in Germany and Europe. Five world-renowned research institutes, namely the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI), the Max Planck Institute for Informatics, the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems, the Center for Bioinformatics and the Cluster for “Multimodal Computing and Interaction” as well as Saarland University with three departments and 24 degree programs cover the entire spectrum of computer science.

Philipp Zapf-Schramm
Saarland Informatics Campus/ Competence Center Computer Science
Saarland Informatics Campus
Phone: +49 681 302-70741

All Images

Eine Frau mit EEG-Mütze auf dem Kopf blickt auf einen Bildschirm A Participant of an EEG-study on brain activation during program comprehension. Photo: SIC/Philipp Zapf-Schramm
Informatik-Professor Sven Apel vor sitzt vor einem Bildschirm. Sven Apel. Computer science professor at Saarland University. Photo: Oliver Dietze
Eine Frau mit EEG-Mütze auf dem Kopf blickt auf einen Bildschirm A Participant of an EEG-study on brain activation during program comprehension. Photo: SIC/Philipp Zapf-Schramm
blank Sven Apel. Computer science professor at Saarland University. Photo: Oliver Dietze

Die Öffentlichkeitsarbeit am Saarland Informatics Campus wird unterstützt durch das Kompetenzzentrum Informatik Saarland, gefördert aus Mitteln des Europäischen Fonds für regionale Entwicklung (EFRE) und Mitteln der Staatskanzlei Saarland.

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