Processing high-level math concepts uses the same neural networks as in basic math skills


Scientific American reports: Alan Turing, Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, John Nash — these “beautiful” minds never fail to enchant the public, but they also remain somewhat elusive. How do some people progress from being able to perform basic arithmetic to grasping advanced mathematical concepts and thinking at levels of abstraction that baffle the rest of the population? Neuroscience has now begun to pin down whether the brain of a math wiz somehow takes conceptual thinking to another level.

Specifically, scientists have long debated whether the basis of high-level mathematical thought is tied to the brain’s language-processing centers — that thinking at such a level of abstraction requires linguistic representation and an understanding of syntax — or to independent regions associated with number and spatial reasoning. In a study published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a pair of researchers at the INSERM–CEA Cognitive Neuroimaging Unit in France reported that the brain areas involved in math are different from those engaged in equally complex nonmathematical thinking.

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. This circuitry is usually not associated with areas involved in language processing and semantics, which were activated in both mathematicians and nonmathematicians when they were presented with the nonmathematical statements. “On the contrary,” says study co-author and graduate student Marie Amalric, “our results show that high-level mathematical reflection recycles brain regions associated with an evolutionarily ancient knowledge of number and space.” [Continue reading…]

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