As a student majoring in Writing, Literature & Publishing, it may come as a surprise that I loved math during high school. On par with my love of mathematics, was my love of science. Math and science are like two peas in a pod. But what’s the science behind math? Scientists have recently been conducting studies that examine the correlation of brain activity and mathematics.
One study located a specialized region in the brain that lights up like a firework when a subject is asked to work with numbers—as in Arabic numerals like 1, 2, 3, not words like one, two, three. This brain spot, discovered by scientists at Stanford University’s School of Medicine, is about one-fifth of an inch in diameter and is located in the same area of our brain that processes certain visual information. Although we all learn and process math uniquely, this Stanford study shows that there seems to be at least one portion of the brain specifically intended for numerical information.
Another study, conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, sought to further understand how the brain sees math. This study compared how sighted and non-sighted individuals process mathematical information. When all participants were asked to complete mathematical problems, the same region of the brain was activated.
But, for the non-sighted participants, so was another region—one used for comprehending visual information in sighted individuals. This area did not become active when sighted individuals were asked the same math problems. The more complex the math problem, the more activity the researchers saw in this area. The research indicates that the brain is capable of processing mathematical information in various areas, even if these areas seem to have originally been designated for another purpose.
A third study, conducted by researchers at the INSERM–CEA Cognitive Neuroimaging Unit in France, compared the brains of advanced mathematicians and non-mathematicians. The study showed that an area of the mathematicians’ brains activated in response to math-based questions. That same area did not activate in the brains of those who were less mathematically inclined. It seems that by training to be mathematicians, these participants altered how their brains process math!
The area that lit up for the mathematicians seems to be connected to the areas our brains use when processing spatial and numerical information (such as recognizing that two grapes on a plate is more than one grape on a plate). Additionally, the study suggested that the brains of the mathematicians seemed to reallocate resources from other regions of the brain, such as those used for visual facial recognition. This further supports the suggestion of the brain’s plasticity as observed by the Johns Hopkins study.
Each of these three studies multiplies our understanding of mathematical brain function and how the mind works—hopefully, one day soon, research will all add up to a complete sum of mathematical understanding!
Did You Know?
An adult human brain has about 100 billion neurons. Development of these neurons starts at birth and continues into adulthood. Neurons, unlike many other types of cells, do not reproduce themselves. And some of the neurons in your brain today are the same ones that you had when you were born!