Recent studies have found that doing mathematics is much more complex a process than was previously thought. From simple math to complicated equations, two distinctly different circuits of the brain are involved in the processing. 

Until recently, little has been known about how the human brain processes math problems. Previously there was speculation, but that came mostly from the mathematicians themselves. The majority of them believed processing mathematics relied more on mental signs and images than words. Albert Einstein, for example, once said, “words or language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought.”

Researchers from France and the United Stated together worked on a project and published their findings in the May 6, 2010 issue of Science. They found that learning the multiplications table could possibly be “more similar to memorizing a laundry list than processing complex mathematical skills.” It was quite a shock to the scientific world.

Drs. Stanislas Dehaene of Service Hospitalier Frederic Joliot in France, and Elizabeth S. Spelke, professor of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, conducted a series of experiments involving bilingual college students. What they found was that one brain circuit assigns names to numbers and processes detailed calculations, while a second circuit operates intuitively and is used for estimating quantities and other numerical relationships.

The team suggests that somewhere during human evolution two areas of the brain, the parietal and frontal lobes, combined forces to produce the remarkable human capacity for manipulating numbers. This interaction could also explain how the brain processes many different kinds of advanced mathematics.

Other studies found that chimps use symbols for numbers, birds and rats are able to count, and human babies can understand there are differences when a number of objects are removed or added to a display (indicating that number sense in inborn). Rhesus monkeys seem to have a real capacity for numbers. On the other side of the coin they found that patients who have suffered strokes could lose their ability to do basic arithmetic, like understanding what number falls between 1 and 10, but are still able to do multiplication tables.

From these finding, Dehaene believes that when doing elementary arithmetic at least two circuits of the brain operate to represent a number: one is based on language skills; and the other is independent of language. The language skills circuit stores tables of knowledge, like the multiplication table, while the other, called a mental “number line,” is used to approximate and manipulate quantities.

College students fluent in Russian and English were tested in their study and asked to solve a series of arithmetic problems. One group was taught in Russian, the other in English. The math problems involved exact calculations as well as approximate answers – such as, does 82 + 13 =  94, 95 or 96? and, is 82 + 13 closer to 90 or 110? They found that when it came to making approximations, both groups did the same – it did not matter if they were tested in Russian or English. For the exact calculations section, however, those taught in English and tested in Russian, or vise versa, showed a delay due to the students’ needing to translate to their own language first.  The researchers concluded that exact problem have to connect to language internally before they can calculate the answer, whereas no translation or language connection is needed when doing approximations.

“I was amazed that the dissociation could be so sharp,” Dehaene said. “We presented our subjects with tasks that are superficially extremely similar. Our brains really solve these two tasks in quite different ways.”

French college students were put through the same tests, but the researchers used MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans. They found the parietal lobes of the brain lit up with approximating answers, but when given exact calculation problems the left frontal lobe area showed the most activity. The parietal lobe of the brain completes visual and spatial tasks, guides hand and eye movement, makes analogies, orients attention and rotates objects mentally. When doing exact calculations, on the other hand, the left frontal lobe lit up the most on the MRI tests. This is where the brain associates verbs and nouns and carries out other language tasks.

Their conclusion was that both the parietal and frontal circuits operated independently of each other, depending upon the type of mathematical problem it is trying to solve.

Since both sides of the brainwork independently in order to solve math problems, it would be recommended that in order to expand a student’s ability to complete these tasks that exercises involving working both sides of the brain would be beneficial. You can do this through memory training techniques, practicing brain games, and solving different types of mathematical problems.



About the author:

Ron White is a two-time U.S.A. Memory Champion and memory training expert. As a memory keynote speaker he travels the world to speak before large groups or small company seminars, demonstrating his memory skills and teaching others how to improve their memory, and how important a good memory is in all phases of your life.



Sources: – 2 Distinct Circuits in the Brain Believed Involved in Doing Math / One for exact calculations, one for rough estimates by Sandra Blakeslee, New York Times: – Scientists Discover the Part of the Brain That Causes Some People to Be Lousy in Math:

MIT News – Different kinds of math use different parts of brain, research finds, by Deborah Halber, News Office: