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Origins of the brain networks for advanced mathematics in expert mathematicians

Two researchers of Neurospin have just revealed that the brain possesses a network of cerebral areas involved in the high-level mathematical​ as in the simplest arithmetic operations.​​

Published on 19 April 2016


Their work addresses the long-standing issue of the relationship between mathematics and language. By scanning professional mathematicians, they show that high-level mathematical reasoning rests on a set of brain areas that do not overlap with the classical left-hemisphere regions involved in language processing or verbal semantics. Instead, all domains of mathematics they tested (algebra, analysis, geometry, and topology) recruit a bilateral network, of prefrontal, parietal, and inferior temporal regions, which is also activated when mathematicians or nonmathematicians recognize and manipulate numbers mentally. Their results suggest that high-level mathematical thinking makes minimal use of language areas and instead recruits circuits initially involved in space and number. This result may explain why knowledge of number and space, during early childhood, predicts mathematical achievement.​


The origins of human abilities for mathematics are debated: Some theories suggest that they are founded upon evolutionarily ancient brain circuits for number and space and others that they are grounded in language competence. To evaluate what brain systems underlie higher mathematics, they scanned professional mathematicians and mathematically naive subjects of equal academic standing as they evaluated the truth of advanced mathematical and nonmathematical statements. In professional mathematicians only, mathematical statements, whether in algebra, analysis, topology or geometry, activated a reproducible set of bilateral frontal, Intraparietal, and ventrolateral temporal regions. Crucially, these activations spared areas related to language and to general-knowledge semantics. Rather, mathematical judgments were related to an amplification of brain activity at sites that are activated by numbers and formulas in nonmathematicians, with a corresponding reduction in nearby face responses. The evidence suggests that high-level mathematical expertise and basic number sense share common roots in a nonlinguistic brain circuit.

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