A mind for math

A part of the brain associated with making memories may also predict success in learning math

A child’s talent for learning math may relate to the size and wiring of different parts of the brain. Credit: iStockphoto
A child’s talent for learning math may relate to the size and wiring of different parts of the brain. iStockphoto

The anatomy of your brain may be linked with how easily you learn math, a new study finds. But that doesn’t mean you can get out of doing your homework by saying you don’t have a head for numbers.

Deep inside each side of the brain lies a region called the hippocampus (plural hippocampi). It’s shaped like a seahorse (hippo campus means “sea monster” in Greek) and helps make memories. The size of this brain region and how it’s wired to others may play important roles in how children learn math, reports a study published in April.

Kaustubh Supekar, a brain scientist at Stanford University, worked on the study. Supekar and his coworkers found that measuring brain structures and how they are connected might predict a student’s math ability. It might even be a better indicator than IQ or other tests. Scientists have spent years studying regions of the adult brain linked to math. But experts still don’t know how math learning happens in children.

It’s “a huge question,” Supekar tells Science News.

David Geary is a psychologist at the University of Missouri in Columbia. He studies how people learn, but did not work on the new research. The new study’s findings, he says, suggest kids who find math hard “just may not have as much brain region devoted to memory formation as other kids.”

The results of the new study come from 24 third-graders. All were between the ages of 8 and 9. Supekar and his team measured the IQ of each child. They also assessed each kid’s math and reading abilities. The scientists then used an MRI machine to scan the students’ brains. An MRI uses powerful magnetic fields to peer inside the body and produce an image, or scan, of internal organs — in this case, the brain. Those scans helped the scientists measure the sizes of the students’ brain regions, including their hippocampi. Those scans also identified connections among different parts of each student’s brain.

Next came the long-term part of the study: tutoring. Each student received 15 to 20 hours of math tutoring over eight weeks. Later, the scientists again tested the math ability of each student. Overall, the tutoring helped all 24 children. However, the children who improved the most in math had bigger hippocampi than the other participants. And the hippocampi of the most-improved children were also well connected to brain regions that make memories and retrieve facts.

Robert Siegler is a neuroscientist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Siegler did not work on the new study but was surprised by its findings. That’s because the hippocampus doesn’t play a big role in an adult’s use of numbers, he says. But for young students, “it apparently is involved in math learning,” he tells Science News.

“Right now, math education is like a one-size-fits-all approach,” Supekar says. But he says the study may help educators tailor math tutoring in ways that best match how a particular child learns.

Power Words

hippocampus Elongated ridges found on each side of the brain. They are thought to be the center of emotion, memory and the involuntary nervous system.

neuroscience The science that deals with the structure or function of the nervous system and brain.

magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI A machine that uses radio waves and a strong magnetic field to produce images of the internal organs.

IQ, or intelligence quotient A number representing a person’s reasoning ability. It’s determined by dividing a person’s score on a special test by his or her age, then multiplying by 100.

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