Examining the Research on How Brains Learn Mathematics

Growing up, math was a strong suit of mine. I excelled in the subject. Until Algebra II. It was during this time that I made a very difficult realization that math indeed was not my strong suit. It was almost offensive, really, as I watched others who had excelled in the same math classes as I had been, go on to be promoted to the next higher track, as I went on to take courses in the lower math track. I concluded that I was just not a “math person.”

I’m noticing more and more that we, as a society, divide people into those who are “math people,” also known as mathematically inclined people, and those who simply aren’t. Those who decidedly aren’t “math people” end up having some type of aversions towards math, and this shouldn’t be the case.

The truth is that classifying people as mathematically inclined really has nothing to do with their ability to learn math. It turns out that “numeracy is actually an innate skill, inherent in humans from birth and enhanced through formal education.” If humans have an innate tendency towards math, then classifying each other as “math people” or not becomes an irrelevant classification. Gottschalk notes that “there are neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’ math learners,” and that this innate ability to learn numeracy is encouraging when it comes to the education sector.

Though we may not see it, we use mathematical functions innately and unknowingly. When it comes to more complex mathematical skills, it may be true that we don’t all use those regularly, but that doesn’t negate (and it shouldn’t) the proven fact that we have natural abilities and tendencies towards numeracy as humans. With that being said, we can focus on the additional benefits that learning continued mathematics has on our brains.

What does the search say?

Many studies have shown that learning math stimulates multiple parts of the brain. One study in particular, conducted by Ryuta Kawashima of Tohuku University, studied brain scans of children playing video games versus completing simple arithmetic tasks, and found that while video games only stimulated the vision and movement parts of the brain, simple math exercises stimulated activity in the left and right areas of the frontal lobe which had implications of the benefits of learning math.

As the study showed, completing math exercises does plenty more for the brain than we originally believed . As mentioned in The Guardian’s article, “the left hemisphere of the brain [is reserved] for methodical stuff like maths, and the right hemisphere for so-called creative thinking.” If completing simple math tasks stimulates both of these areas, then the value of learning math is clear. Kawashima “went on to show that addition and subtraction actually did more for growing brains than listening to music or listening to text read aloud.”

A study at Stanford University has laid the groundwork for “using brain scans to identify children who are at-risk who are struggling in math (rather than destined to struggle) and providing interventions that reshape their brain.” With initiatives such as this, teacher education programs and schools may be able to improve curriculum and design activities that open up access to higher quality mathematics learning.

Concluding thoughts

With an innate tendency towards numeracy, along with the findings that our methodical and creative sections of our brain are stimulated through mathematics, there should be no division among who is a “math person” and who isn’t, avoiding such aversions to math. We all benefit from the continuous learning of mathematics at any level, and we should be exploring the implications of a more accessible math education on our future generations.   

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