The brains of mathematicians

9 May

A post at Scientific American asks: “How Does a Mathematician’s Brain Differ from That of a Mere Mortal?”

“The team used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of 15 professional mathematicians and 15 nonmathematicians of the same academic standing. While in the scanner the subjects listened to a series of 72 high-level mathematical statements, divided evenly among algebra, analysis, geometry and topology, as well as 18 high-level nonmathematical (mostly historical) statements. They had four seconds to reflect on each proposition and determine whether it was true, false or meaningless.
The researchers found that in the mathematicians only, listening to math-related statements activated a network involving bilateral intraparietal, dorsal prefrontal, and inferior temporal regions of the brain.”

 

2 Responses to “The brains of mathematicians”

  1. Enrique Guerra-Pujol May 9, 2016 at 6:09 pm #

    Aren’t all these fMRI studies dubious since they don’t explain causation: either area X lights up because that is the “math” part of the brain, or it lights up because doing X (in this case: solving math problems) triggers something in area X

    • jecgenovese May 12, 2016 at 12:49 pm #

      Thanks for your comments.
      There is certainly a problem with exaggerated claims made from fMRI studies, so it is wise to wait for replication.
      Any correlation between brain structure and behavior has correlation/causation issues. Brain is a plastic tissue. Are we better mathematicians because we have a larger (hypothetical) math region in the brain? Or is the math region larger because of our extensive practice in math? We will need to have a better understanding of how the brain restructures itself and of the underlying genetics to answer these questions. However, knowing the correlations may help us find the right questions to ask.

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