The role of the insula in intuitive expert bug detection in computer code: an fMRI study



Software programming is a complex and relatively recent human activity, involving the integration of mathematical, recursive thinking and language processing. The neural correlates of this recent human activity are still poorly understood. Error monitoring during this type of task, requiring the integration of language, logical symbol manipulation and other mathematical skills, is particularly challenging. We therefore aimed to investigate the neural correlates of decision-making during source code understanding and mental manipulation in professional participants with high expertise. The present fMRI study directly addressed error monitoring during source code comprehension, expert bug detection and decision-making. We used C code, which triggers the same sort of processing irrespective of the native language of the programmer. We discovered a distinct role for the insula in bug monitoring and detection and a novel connectivity pattern that goes beyond the expected activation pattern evoked by source code understanding in semantic language and mathematical processing regions. Importantly, insula activity levels were critically related to the quality of error detection, involving intuition, as signalled by reported initial bug suspicion, prior to final decision and bug detection. Activity in this salience network (SN) region evoked by bug suspicion was predictive of bug detection precision, suggesting that it encodes the quality of the behavioral evidence. Connectivity analysis provided evidence for top-down circuit “reutilization” stemming from anterior cingulate cortex (BA32), a core region in the SN that evolved for complex error monitoring such as required for this type of recent human activity. Cingulate (BA32) and anterolateral (BA10) frontal regions causally modulated decision processes in the insula, which in turn was related to activity of math processing regions in early parietal cortex. In other words, earlier brain regions used during evolution for other functions seem to be reutilized in a top-down manner for a new complex function, in an analogous manner as described for other cultural creations such as reading and literacy.


fMRI, Brain mapping, Insula Informatics, Error monitoring, Salience network, Computer code understanding


Computer code understanding / Neuroscience


Brain Imaging and Behavior, Vol. 12, #12, pp. 1-15, Andrew J. Saykin, May 2018


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