Mathematical Ability Revealed in Brain Scans

The ways that the brain processes language and complex mathematical concepts are quite different.

Albert Einstein once said that his mathematical genius had nothing to do with language: "Words and language, whether written or spoken, do not seem to play any part in my thought processes."

And now high-definition brain scans prove he had a point. The ways that the brain processes language and complex mathematical concepts are quite different, according to a new study.

The notion that humans first developed mathematical abilities as an offshoot of early forms of language has been a long-standing hypothesis, according to the study authors. And some studies have suggested that the way the brain wrangles abstract math concepts has more in common with language processing than it does with simple number recognition and formula computing. [3D Images: Exploring the Human Brain]

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But this idea has opponents - including many mathematicians, the researchers noted - who argue that understanding complex math involves perception pathways that differ greatly from those that untangle words.

To find out which idea held true, researchers turned to a type of noninvasive scan called fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), which creates high-resolution images that can map changes in neural activity triggered by blood flow. In that way, researchers would be able to see which parts of the brain lit up during different types of tasks.

For the experiments in the study, the scientists selected 15 subjects who were trained mathematicians and 15 subjects who were well educated but did not specialize in math. The researchers posed a series of statements to each subject on a range of topics - math and nonmath - which participants were asked to identify as "true," "false" or "meaningless."

When both groups responded to statements on subjects that had nothing to do with math, the brain scans showed activity in the regions associated with language processing.

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But when the mathematicians pondered and responded to statements relating to advanced mathematical concepts, certain regions of their brains - the prefrontal, parietal, and inferior temporal regions - lit up. Those brain regions also activated in nonmathematicians only when they were puzzling over numbers and formulas. During this activity, the researchers found, did not occur at all in brain regions linked to words.

According to the study's co-author Marie Amalric, their findings indicate that understanding math on a conceptual level uses the same neural networks that recognize numbers and space, rather than the networks that process general knowledge.

Amalric, a neuroscientist with the Cognitive Neuroimaging Unit at the NeuroSpin Center in France, told Live Science in an email that prior studies suggested that an early childhood ability to recognize numbers could possibly predict aptitude for performing more abstract mathematical reasoning later in life.

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"Such applications are a bit far from our conclusions," Amalric said. "However, our findings are in accordance with previous conclusions showing that the number sense is a good predictor of further mathematical skills."

The study was published online today (April 11) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Original article on Live Science.

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To most people,


means a warm chalet, hot drink, spa or dinner. To Simon Beck of Great Britain, it means creating intricate pictures in the snow. And not just snow angels: Beck’s snow art involves mathematical patterns and often stretches the length of several soccer fields. "There’s a frozen lake outside where I stay, and one day after skiing I thought, wouldn’t it be fun to make a pattern?" he said. "I didn’t have any snow shoes, just walking boots, but the snow wasn’t too deep and it worked perfectly well." He’s been doing it ever since, and recently collected 200 of his favorite images in the book

"Snow Art"


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After Beck read New York Times reporter James Gleick’s book, "Chaos: Making a New Science," he started incorporating mathematical patterns into his work. "That’s part of my inspiration," he said. The Koch curve snowflake shown here is one of his favorite patterns.

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Beck has been creating snow art seriously for about five years. One of his favorite patterns to stomp, shown here, is based on the Sierpinski triangle. "It’s quite easy to do, and it makes a good impact," he said. "I also use it as one element in larger works."

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Pictured, a Sierpinski circle displayed, briefly, at a ski resort in 2014.

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Beck also likes to make patterns that are variations on the

Mandelbrot set

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“The biggest was about 10 soccer fields,” he said. “It’s a bit hard to measure, but a decent-sized project is about three soccer fields. That takes one day if conditions are good.” Good conditions mean 6-inch deep snow, or 6 inches of powder on top of a firm base.

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"Quite honestly, once I have good photos I don’t care how long they stay around for," he said. Beck does most of his work in a French ski resort where he spends his winters. Frozen lakes are ideal. In those kinds of conditions, he’ll make do about two projects per week, posting photos on Facebook.

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Beck also occasionally works on commission, creating logos in different locations.

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Beck, a map-maker by trade, says the designs come naturally. "It’s just like map making," he said. "It’s the same process, in reverse." Bonus: the walking keeps him in shape. "I don’t need to do any exercise apart from snow art," he said.

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