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Where does the brain do math?

by Mylène Durant May 6 / 15
Photo credit: Mylène Durant CC-BY-SA-4.0

Is higher mathematical reasoning related to the human capacity for language? Or does it depend on parts of the brain that specialize in number sense and spatial relations? New research suggests it’s the latter.

The research from Stanislas Dehaene (Collège de France, Inserm), a Senior Fellow in the CIFAR Azrieli Program in Brain, Mind & Consciousness, helps answer a long-standing question about the origins of mathematical reasoning. It turns out that the same neural networks that are involved in infants’ ability to tell that two is more than one are also those used by professional mathematicians thinking about the most complex mathematical questions.

“Where mathematical ability comes from is a long-standing question. Our research helps to show that advanced mathematical reasoning relies on dorsal parietal and frontal areas of the brain and totally spares brain regions involved in language skills,” Says Marie Amalric, a PhD student who co-authored the paper with Dehaene.

Many researchers had speculated that the ability to solve higher math problems must be related to language ability, which also requires complex manipulation of symbols and relationships. But others were skeptical, including Albert Einstein, who said, “Words and language, whether written or spoken, do not seem to play any part in my thought processes.”

Dehaene and Marie Amalric tested 15 professional mathematicians, and compared them with 15 non-mathematicians of similar education and professional standing. All of the subjects were asked a mixture of math and non-math questions while in a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine, which was able to detect which parts of the brain were undergoing the most activity.

While in the machine, the subjects were all read short spoken sentences consisting of both math and non-math statements, and asked whether it was true, false or meaningless. In professional mathematicians, a specific set of areas was activated when they were thinking about math problems. The areas included some that had been previously identified as being used for basic number sense in infants.

These areas weren’t activated by non-math problems, and were not activated in the non-mathematicians who treated complex mathematical statements as gibberish. What’s more, processing mathematical problems used little or none of the brain that is associated with sentence processing. For professional mathematicians, math really does seem to use a different part of the brain than language.

The same regions were used for all four domains of mathematics tested: analysis, topology, algebra and geometry.

The results suggest that ability in higher mathematics relies on the same basic circuits that everyone uses for our intuitions about space, time and number awareness. Although language processing may be used while learning mathematics, mathematical reasoning itself seems to happen in its own parts of the brain.

The results were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.