A Beautiful Mind: Are The Brains Of Mathematicians Different From Those Of The Average Person?

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A Beautiful Mind: Are The Brains Of Mathematicians Different From Those Of The Average Person?
By Joshua L Davis III



In the movie “A Beautiful Mind,” starring Russell Crowe, he was playing the role of John Nash who was a mathematician who won the Nobel prize for advances in game theory. At various parts of the movie, I was at awe with how Mr. Nash was portrayed with being able to see patterns in numbers and the world around us that the majority of the population, including many of his colleagues at MIT, were unable to see.

This movie caused me to think of other well known mathematicians such as Albert Einstein, Steven Hawkins, Sir Isaac Newton, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Professor Blackwell and others.


I began to wonder what set these mathematicians apart from other people who we consider to be of average intelligence.


Were and are the brains of those well known mathematicians and other gifted mathematicians that we have not heard about different in some way from other people who do not seem to be as gifted in mathematics?


According to a study that was conducted by the INSERM–CEA Cognitive Neuroimaging Unit in France, there definitely appears to be a difference in the brains of those who are able to do high level math, (such as Calculus III and beyond), and those who are not.


The imaging unit had thirty volunteers that were divided into two groups of fifteen. One group was composed of  trained and practicing mathematicians. The other group consisted of those who were not mathematicians.


There were various questions that had three choices. The choices were true, false, or meaningless.


These questions were posed to them as their brains were being scanned by a magnetic resonance imaging device.


That device uses various color signatures to show areas of the brain that are activated when various questions  are asked.


The questions consisted of a variety of math related topics and a group of what is considered to be liberal  arts, historical or general non math related questions.


The scans showed that when the professional mathematicians were asked high level abstract math questions the  bilateral intraparietal, dorsal prefrontal and inferior temporal regions of the brains, according to the  imaging unit from France, became highly active.


That activity did not occur in the other group that was asked the same high level abstract math questions.


Based on those observations, the imaging unit concluded that the brains of average people do not function the  same as those who are trained in higher level mathematics or appear to be born gifted in mathematics.


According to the experts at the unit in France, the bilateral intraparietal, dorsal prefrontal and inferior  temporal is not associated with language processing.


These observations caused them to pose the following questions: do the areas of the brain that are known to be responsible for language processing perform independently from the areas that are known or are recognized to be responsible for higher level mathematical and abstract thinking and processing? or are there areas where  these regions appear to intersect and become interdependent?


Researchers are trying to determine how those questions can help them better determine conclusively if there  is a difference between the brains of those who have an affinity for higher level math thinking and those who do not.


There seem to be questions about whether abstract thinking can be accomplished without the brain having to need language as an input and then use some area of the brain to convert that language into some type of two dimensional or multi-dimensional picture or figure.


Researchers are trying to determine if the way words are ordered or arranged influences the way the brain generates abstract ideas. Are words necessary for higher level math thinking to occur? Are only symbols needed? Those questions are still being researched and studied. It is possible that one day those  questions will finally have definite answers.


Some researchers are investigating whether generation of thought happens separately from the language processing center. Some have determined that the areas that control number and spatial reasoning are the areas where abstract development occurs.


When the participants were asked questions about general arithmetic or basic math, the same areas of the brain were shown by the scan to be activated in both groups. The bilateral intraparietal, dorsal  prefrontal and inferior temporal regions of the brain did not become active in the group that were labeled  as professional mathematicians. The scans appear to show that both groups had common areas of the brain that lit up when general basic math questions were posed.
The brain consists of neural networks. They look like electrical wiring or very thin spaghetti. From recent studies of the brain, it appears that math processing and language processing are each bundled as separate neural networks. Researchers are still looking for undeniable proof that an interconnection exists between these areas.


Researchers have identified that math processing occurs in the left hemisphere of the brain and language processing happens in the right hemisphere.


As a side note, there are people who seem to use the left and right hemi-spheres of the brain in a balanced way. You may have met people who demonstrated that they are equally gifted in the areas of  liberal arts, language and math. Scientists are still trying to determine how the two halves of their brains work harmoniously together.


There are many people who want to know if the ability to understand and work with high level abstract math can be stimulated and developed in people who do not presently demonstrate a strength in mathematics beyond  basic high school algebra.


There are some that say yes because studies have shown that the brain can and does develop new pathways or  neural networks when people consistently work at learning new material. Based on those studies, there are groups of experts who believe that it is possible to train people to become high level mathematical thinkers.


They know those people may not become Einsteins, but believe that if most people are given the right stimuli, training, patience and encouragement they can become accomplished mathematicians.


What do you think about the study?


Do you believe that there is a difference in the brains of those who do master high level mathematics as compared to those whose apparently cannot grasp math beyond basic high school algebra?

 Copyright: 2016, by Joshua L Davis III, Applied Success Education Center
No part of this article may be copied or transmitted in any way
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