Codebreakers and Editors: Not So Different

grandmap2Some of you may recall that my paternal grandmother was a codebreaker at Bletchley Park during World War II. Well, today would have been her 95th birthday, and I’ve written a little something in her honour. One thing we had in common was a love of the theatre. The members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force often put on plays to entertain each other during their time at Bletchley—my grandmother is the one on the right.

My paternal grandfather was the Principal Lecturer in English at Ware College, so I always assumed that I took after him, while my father, my uncle, and my younger brother—the computer programmers/developers of the family—took after my grandmother. But I stumbled across an article that suggests I might have more in common with my grandmother than I realized.

In 2014, Siegmund et al. published an article called Understanding Understanding Source Code with functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI)—and yes, that second “understanding” is supposed to be there. See, they are understanding the programmers’ understanding of source code. Despite the awkward title, their study was pretty ingenious. They gave programmers some lines of code and asked them to decide whether the code would be executed (i.e., was the code written correctly). They used fMRI to see which areas of the brain engaged while the programmers read the code. According to their research, five areas of the brain consistently lit up: language comprehension, silent word reading, working memory, problem solving, and division of attention. What’s particularly interesting is that these areas only lit up in the left hemisphere, which is the dominant side of the brain when it comes to language.

I won’t get into the specifics of the language areas of the brain, but you can learn all about it from this great module on neurolinguistics. In a nutshell, the programmers were interpreting code in the same way that editors interpret sentences (i.e., does it make sense?).

So it stands to reason that someone who’s good at programming—or codebreaking—would have a brain wired for language processing. I guess it’s no surprise that I turned out to be an editor and a writer who also happens to love computers. Guess I was genetically loaded from the get go.

Want to test your codebreaking skills? The BBC put together six codebreaking challenges that get progressively difficult. Let me know how you do.

Image credit: Bletchley Park archives

6 thoughts on “Codebreakers and Editors: Not So Different

  1. Wow, an ancestor at Bletchley! I’m so jealous.
    Great post.
    I had an interesting discussion with my husband shortly after we’d gotten together. His background is computer science, and he also loves words—does challenging crossword puzzles, writes careful prose, reads a lot, etc. But he once asked my advice about a line in an email, and he balked at one of my suggestions, saying it was ungrammatical. I told him that it was a perfectly acceptable idiom—I don’t remember the specific usage, but I remember telling him I wouldn’t have edited it out of a manuscript. He was amazed, and said, “Well, i guess computer scientists might not make good editors. Your rules are flexble; ours are all about whether something will get past the compiler.”



    1. Thanks Elizabeth! I often wish I’d had more time to get to know my grandmother as an adult.

      That’s a great story about your husband. I could totally imagine having a similar conversation with one of the programmers in my life. A good editor knows the rules, but also knows when they can be broken. I wonder if there are times when programmers can break their rules without causing chaos?

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