Brain and Math

Brain and Math

What happens in the brain when smart students process math tasks fluently?

This month I read several studies on how the brain processes math tasks.  There are more studies on how reading takes place in the brain, but researchers in the past two years have traced the brain activity over several different types of math problems to see where the neurological activity is the highest.  


What they concluded is that the brain uses a small area near the lower back part of the brain to visually recognize the number symbols.  It then uses three different parts of the parietal lobe, both right and left sides (think crown), when visualizing spatial relationships in math.  This would include visualizing a number line, a coordinate plane, a normal math calculation problem vertically arranged on a page, or other graphic representations of quantity, sequence or placement.  Place value must live in the spatial perception part of the brain, the parietal lobe.  


The researchers also found that the prefrontal lobe (think forehead area) is used for the logical reasoning that is involved in manipulating math symbols and quantities.  The prefrontal lobe is the area of the brain that we know controls our executive functions such as planning, deciding, sorting, comparing, focusing and evaluating. This area are especially active when the student is figuring out how to do a new type of question and they are using the strategies and rules that they have already learned in order to think through the new one.  Word problems also activate the prefrontal lobe. 


The instructional implications of these studies is that students need to VISUALIZE the math problems in nonverbal ways.  Using dice, geometric shapes, and charts to see the physical orientation and relationships between numbers. Historically, students have used concrete manipulatives to demonstrate math relationships.  This is a great way for kids to visualize math ideas. A great source for these kinds of games and activities is Coming to Know Number and Developing Mathematical Fluency, both by Grayson Wheatley.

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