When does the brain develop maths?

wooden_1-2-3.jpgAn innovative study just published in the open-access science journal PLoS Biology provides intriguing evidence that the brain dedicates a region to understanding maths by as early as four years-old.

The researchers, led by neuroscientist Jessica Cantlon, used fMRI to brain-scan adults and four year-old children while they watched collections of shapes flash up in front of them.

In most conditions, the number of shapes and the type of the shapes stayed the same, so participants mostly saw pictures of 16 circles.

On rare occasions, the circles were replaced by squares or triangles, or alternatively, the number of shapes doubled to 32. This last condition was crucial, because it represented a change in the number of shapes presented on screen.

Most other things that could have caused a brain response were controlled for, so a change of brain activation here should indicate a neural response linked to detecting a change in number.

In this condition, both adults and four-year olds showed activation in an area called the intraparietal sulcus, part of the parietal lobe.

This area is known to be particularly involved in sophisticated number processing in adults using Arabic numerals (what we would normally think of as ‘maths’), which suggests that this ability may be based on a very early mechanism for dealing with counting and numbers.

Interestingly, children showed this activation largely on the right hand side of the brain, whereas adults showed similar activation on both sides.

Cantlon and her team suggest that this is because basic number ability becomes more complex as we learn to do symbolic mathematical operations during and after school, which the pre-school children in the study were unable to do.

Link to summary of study.
Link to full text of scientific paper.

One Comment

  1. Posted April 18, 2006 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

    This post reminded me of Socrates in the Phaedo. He argues for the immortality of the soul. One example is the ubiquity of basic mathematical knowledge – like 2 + 7 = 9. Even uneducated people know these simple things. He argues that our knowledge of math is a kind of remembering the order of the universe. That we knew this order *before* we were born. If our soul was around before our body was, we may as well conclude that it will be around after.


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