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Inside the Brain of a Math Wizard

There’s no doubt that truly gifted mathematicians think differently than the rest of us. It’s often observable during their everyday social interactions. But is there a neuroanatomical explanation for the difference, or is it merely the result of training? Cutting-edge fMRI studies suggest the former.

You’ll recall from last week’s post a discussion of the revelations gleaned from the dissection of Einstein’s brain: it was more connective, and had a smaller than average language center  (a.k.a., Broca’s Area) which was compensated for by an extremely large math processing center (inferior parietal lobe).  Scientists concluded that these structural abnormalities were at least partially responsible for Einstein’s other-worldly mathematical genius.

Much more recently, neuroscientists at the Institut National de la Sante´ et de la Recherche Me´ dicale in France have used fMRI technology to confirm this hypothesis. Specifically, the scientists hooked groups of gifted and average mathematicians up to fMRI machines and asked them a series of questions, some mathematical and some historical. The brains of the gifted mathematicians lit up differently when mathematical questions were asked, suggesting several ancient, non-linguistic portions of the brain were acting in concert (the bilateral intraparietal, dorsal prefrontal, and inferior temporal regions of the brain) with their more nascent evolutionary predecessors (the parietal lobes, etc.). It became very clear that the original evolutionary circuitry that allowed our ancestors to count predators/prey was still involved in the thought processes of today’s most gifted mathematicians. The neuroscientists’ inquiry is now turning to whether the connection between that circuitry, which is activated by simple number recognition, has any relationship to advanced mathematical reasoning (beyond simple arithmetic). Further exploration into whether the enhanced activity of this circuitry is the result of structure/genetics or the rigorous mathematic training that high-level mathematicians undergo throughout their academic and professional careers is also merited.

In sum, gifted mathematicians think differently, are wired differently, and are sometimes even built differently (in extreme cases such as Einstein’s). However, the effect of these differences on mathematical proficiency has yet to be quantified. Stay tuned to Mojo’s Science Saturdays for more!

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