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Brain scanners help scientists see how math geniuses use their minds
By Scientific American, adapted by Newsela staff
Grade Level 3 Word Count 397
Why are some people so much better at math than most of us are? Is there something different about the way they think?
How Do Brains Work?
Scientists are starting to answer those questions. They are learning how the brain of a math whiz works. We use different parts of our brain for different kinds of things. For example, we use one part when we read. We use another part when we see someone's face. There are many different kinds of thinking.
Brain Scanners Show How
The brain uses a kind of electricity. It is something like the electricity that lights up lightbulbs. When we think, different parts of our brain start working. As they work they give off electrical sparks. Machines called scanners can pick up these sparks. The sparks show up on a scanner's screen. They look like bits of light and color.
Watching Brains Do Math
French scientists have just released a new study. It shows something about the way a mathematician's brain works. Mathematicians work with math all the time. They are able to understand very complicated math problems. The French team studied two groups of people. Fifteen were mathematicians and 15 were not. All were asked to answer a set of tricky questions.
This Part Does The Math
Seventy-two of the questions were complicated math problems. Eighteen were other kinds of complicated questions. The people in the study were all hooked up to a scanner. The scientists could see what parts of their brain they used. The scientists discovered something different about the mathematicians. They used certain special parts of their brains. They used these parts to answer the math questions.
Does It All Add Up?
The mathematicians used parts of the brain that are for thinking about numbers. None of the nonmathematicians used those parts.
Instead, the nonmathematicians used parts of the brain connected to talking and reading. They did that even for the math questions.
Scientists say everyone sometimes uses the parts of the brain the mathematicians used. We use them for simple math. We use them when we add, for example.
Keep On Scanning
Still, most people cannot do very hard math. It is not clear why only a few people can.Scientists hope to find out more about the way mathematicians think. Brain scanners will be a big help. They will let scientists see thinking as it happens.
By Scientific American, adapted by Newsela staff
Grade Level 7 Word Count 854
Mathematical geniuses like Alan Turing, Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking or John Nash are certainly awe-inspiring. The way their minds work remains unclear, however. Why is it that some people can grasp advanced mathematical ideas that baffle the rest of us? Is there something special about the way they think?
What Makes Their Brains Special?
Scientists are now starting to answer those questions. They are beginning to pin down the ways in which the brain of a math whiz works differently from the brain of a nonmathematician. Scientists have long debated whether high-level mathematical thought is tied to the parts of the brain that deal with language. Some believe thinking at a very high mathematical level requires not only number skills, but language skills as well. Higher-level mathematical thinking, they say, requires the use of ideas that can only be conceived and expressed through words. It also requires an understanding of sentence structure. Other scientists claim higher-level mathematical thinking has nothing to do with language. They maintain it is tied only to independent regions of the brain associated with number and spatial reasoning.
Brain Scans Show The Way
A new study by French researchers provides evidence that supports the second view. The French team ran a series of tests that looked at what parts of the brain are activated during different kinds of mental tasks. The tests show that the brain areas involved in high-level math are different from those used in high-level nonmathematical thinking.
The team studied a group made up of 15 professional mathematicians and 15 nonmathematicians who are experts in other fields. Each subject was placed in a brain-imaging scanner that allowed the scientists to monitor his or her brain activity. The scientists could see which specific areas of the subjects' brains were activated during different tasks. The subjects listened to a series of 72 high-level mathematical statements, as well as 18 high-level nonmathematical statements. They had four seconds to think about each statement and determine whether it was true, false or meaningless. Throughout this process, the subjects' brain activity was carefully monitored.
Brain Regions Activated By Math
The researchers say they discovered something unique about the mathematicians. When the mathematicians listened to math-related statements certain particular parts of their brains were activated: the bilateral intraparietal, dorsal prefrontal and inferior temporal regions. These regions are usually not associated with language processing. Among the nonmathematicians, those areas of the brain were not activated at all. They also were not activated when the mathematicians listened to nonmathematical statements. Instead, areas of the brain that are involved in language processing were activated in both mathematicians and nonmathematicians.
The study helps resolve a long-standing debate about mathematical thinking, study co-author Marie Amalric said. It shows that high-level mathematical thinking uses brain regions associated with number and spatial reasoning.
Born With A Sense Of Numbers?
Previous research has found that these non-language-related areas of the brain are active when we perform simple arithmetic calculations. They are activated even by just the sight of numbers on a page.
In fact, study co-author Stanislas Dehaene has done research that suggests humans are born with a sense of numbers. For example, we are born with the ability to recognize that two pieces of fruit are greater than one. The new study suggests a link between such basic mathematical abilities and the ability to perform high-level math. How one gets from having a built-in “number sense” to being able to perform higher-level math remains unknown, however. Most people master basic arithmetic, scientist Daniel Ansari pointed out. They are already using the parts of their brain involved in number reasoning. However, "only a fraction of us go on to do high-level math."
Can They See How All Adds Up?
The relationship between basic and higher-level mathematical skills is still unclear, Ansari said. Does becoming a mathematical expert change "the way you do arithmetic?" Or does learning basic math lay out the foundation for developing higher-level mathematical skills?
Ansari said it would be useful to run a study in which nonmathematicians are taught advanced mathematical ideas. Such a study could provide a better understanding of the connections between basic and advanced mathematical skills and how they form.
The new French study suggests that developing expertise in math could involve decreasing activity in certain non-math-related parts of the brain. The French scientists say the mathematicians they studied had reduced activity in certain visual areas of the brain. These regions are involved in recognizing faces and interpreting people's expressions.
Does Math Displace Other Skills?
Perhaps this could mean that the focus required to grasp certain mathematical ideas may weaken some of the brain’s other abilities. However, additional studies are still needed to determine if mathematicians actually do process faces differently.
Researchers hope to learn more about how math expertise shapes brain activity. They also hope to better understand how such advanced abilities develop in the first place. “We can start to investigate where exceptional abilities come from,” Ansari says. “I just think it’s great that we now have the capability to use brain imaging to answer these deep questions about the complexity of human abilities.”