Counting on brain structure: MRI reveals numeracy

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  • Published: Jan 1, 2014
  • Author: David Bradley
  • Channels: MRI Spectroscopy
thumbnail image: Counting on brain structure: MRI reveals numeracy

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American researchers have used

Magnetic resonance image can reveal whether an individual's numeracy skills pivot on their spatial or non-spatial awareness skills, according to Dutch researchers writing in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.

Florian Krause, Ivan Toni and Harold Bekkering from the Donders Institute in Nijmegen and Oliver Lindemann of the University of Potsdam, Germany have used MRI to reveal how different brain structures are involved in the way different people process numbers - some people process numbers spatially, others non-spatially. One might imagine that people who process numbers spatially do this using, for instance, an imaginary horizontal line along which the numbers are arranged from low to high, left to right. A non-spatial representation is also possible, by comparing numbers to other magnitudes such as heaviness or brightness. It had been assumed previously that everyone simple processed numbers in a predominantly spatial manner. But, this is not the case, as any non-spatial calculators might attest.

Krause and his colleagues have now correlated the predisposition to spatial or non-spatial number processing in MRI scans of thirty test subjects. They showed that there are differences in grey matter volume in two specific locations. Spatially oriented brains have an above-average grey matter volume in the right precuneus, a small area of the brain associated with processing visual-spatial information. By contrast, people with a non-spatial approach to numbers have more grey matter in the left angular gyrus, an area associated with semantic and conceptual processing.

Differential equation

"Our current study stresses the importance of non-spatial number representations," Krause explains. "This is important since researchers in the field tend to focus mainly on spatial representations. Personally, I think that numbers are understood in terms of our body experiences. We use information about size in real life to understand number size in our heads."

The thirty subjects of the study were scanned using MRI while being shown numbers from 1 to 9 with the 5 missing. In two consecutive judgement tasks, the subjects had to classify the presented digits as odd or even. Both tasks differed only in the required response: in the spatial task subjects had to click with their index finger or middle finger to classify the digits, and in the non-spatial task they applied either a small or a large force on a pressure sensor with their thumb. Both tests were carried out using the right hand. Importantly, the researchers found that the participants coupled the spatial response as well as the force response to the size of the presented number, as they responded faster with a left or soft press for small numbers and with a right or hard press for large numbers. The researchers calculated the details of these couplings for each volunteer and then compared the scores with the information obtained in the brain scans.

Didactic mathematical

The importance of revealing this difference is one of practical education in mathematics. Today, numeracy skills are taught largely on the basis of a spatial number processing approach, with number lines and other tools commonly used in schools. "People with a non-spatial representation of numbers would probably benefit from a different approach to mathematics teaching," Krause asserts. "It is possible to let students experience the size of numbers in a non-spatial way. This could involve expressing numbers with your body while doing simple arithmetic, for example," he adds. The team is now planning several new experiments to explore the scientific basis of methods like these in more detail.

Related Links

J Cognit Neurosci, 2013: "Different brains process numbers differently: structural bases of individual differences in spatial and non-spatial number representations"

Article by David Bradley

The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.

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