Saturday, August 1, 2015

Are mathematical abilities fixed from birth?


This is a difficult question.  Math demands two key talents.  One of them is speed.  You must be able to sprint in order to dash ahead of your peers and to gain encouragement.  No one respects a slow mathematician.  The second is mathematical insight.  Without it one is dependent on memory and that is problematic in terms of creativity.

Everyone else keys in on using memory to support mathematical tools.  That is why we memorize the times table and there is really no other way. 

After all that you must still do ten thousand hours of practice to become good or even survive.  Photographic memories get a sometime pass but lose on discipline which often blocks furter advancement.

Are mathematical abilities fixed from birth?

Do you have a brain like Einstein? Could you? Or maybe it is too late for you, but still possible for your child? The question at the centre is this: Do our mathematical abilities stay fixed? This and related questions fascinate psychologists and neuroscientists, who are attempting to provide the answer. Though the research has been ongoing for many decades, let me try to give you the gist of it.

The brains of maths experts are different from those who have more average skills, in a similar way to how the brain of musicians or taxi drivers are different to those who are not trained or working in those professions. Long years of practice, at maths, music, and so on, change brain structure depending on the cognitive functions that are trained. At the same time, it is important to state that those who choose to engage with (and some might even go as far as to enjoy) maths might already possess different cognitive abilities or brain structures to start with. In other words, it’s a chicken-and-egg problem.

To know if the potential to become a mathematician is something you are born with, or acquire later in life through practice (or both), we need to assess whether there are any differences at very young ages, before people make their educational and career decisions, and the extent to which mathematics is involved in their chosen endeavours. But you can still change the future! Even if you are not excellent with maths, your actions can influence your children’s maths abilities. For example, games that include numerical information (Snake and Ladders, Domino, Monopoly), or talking to young children in language that includes numbers, such as: “look at this car with the *four* exhausts”, “tell me if I am driving above or below the speed limit” (albeit the latter might lead to an excellent police officer), are all examples of activities that train your child to interpret and cope well with numbers and even enjoy it.

But this might not work in all the cases. Just like a person with hearing impairments will not be able to hear well due to a neurological problem, some children might not be able to process numbers at the expected level due to brain abnormalities. This is not due to laziness or intellectual deficiency - they might be excellent in other areas - but numbers are beyond their reach, just as some children might have reading difficulties. This difficulty in learning and performing mathematics is termed dyscalculia. Today, research is underway that aims to ameliorate such dysfunctions, using cognitive training intervention as well as neuromodulation methods. Such interventions are intended to push the brain regions that are working suboptimally closer to optimum function. However, this line of research is still at an early stage.

But how about the adult brain? In this case, cognitive interventions might improve performance, but the effect might be limited compared to children, because the adult brain is not as susceptible to environmental influence and change as the brain of a child. Nevertheless, some change is certainly possible, and capitalising on that possibility is the central aim of research groups developing interventions for adults. My group has been working on ways to improve maths by providing some training, but at the same time changing how the brain is working using neuromodulation in order to affect its capacity to learn and improve mathematical performance. The goal is to translate this to children with maths problems, or to elderly individuals who show age-related declines in cognitive capacity.

Eventually, you might not have Einstein’s brain. However, the take home message is that our maths ability is not predetermined, we can affect our brains and maths ability, and we might in the future develop new innovations to improve them even further.

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