Is there something that distinguishes adult mathematicians from the average person? Several studies suggest that the answer is yes. Getting a deep understanding of mathematics requires much more than being good at mental arithmetic and other calculations.
Such individuals also have an advanced mathematical understanding based on logical reasoning and argumentation. Mathematicians also have higher IQs, better memory, and more motivation to learn mathematics than the average person. At the same time, there is no doubt that they have also practiced a lot, and the foundation is laid early.
This is shown, for example, in a study that followed students in England and the USA from the age of 10 to their teenage years (Siegler et al., 2012). The researchers found a clear correlation between how well the students mastered fractions and division at the age of 10 and how good they were in algebra as teenagers. They also found that skills in fractions and division had a much greater impact on later mathematical understanding than addition, subtraction, and multiplication. This may be because fractions and division require more advanced mathematical thinking than the other arithmetic operations.
Memory and motivation for mathematics
There have also been studies of the brain activity of mathematicians thinking about mathematics. The results show that the brain activity of mathematicians thinking about mathematics differs from that of other people with similar levels of education. They have higher tissue density in the parietal cortex, the brain area that plays a key role when processing numbers (Sella, 2018). This is also where IPS with its number neurons is located. Furthermore, differences in the frontal cortex of teenagers who immersed themselves in mathematics compared to teenagers who did not have this interest have been found. When studying brain activity, it is seen that mathematicians use less energy when making calculations than people who are not good at mathematics. They process information faster than others and seem to have extra good communication between the right and left hemispheres of the brain (Leikin, 2021).
Biological factors among mathematicians
So, there are biological differences between highly educated mathematicians and the general population, but we do not know the importance of heredity compared to the environment. We can only get answers through long-term studies that follow many students from a young age. The most important thing to take away from this research for anyone teaching mathematics, in my opinion, is that environmental influence can have a significant impact.
Advice for a good mathematical learning environment:
- Tell children that you believe that all children can master mathematics.
- Use positive language when talking about mathematics.
- Give students lots of encouragement and praise for their efforts.
- Use mistakes as a tool for learning. Talk about mistakes that we can learn from. We cannot improve without making mistakes.
- Talk and think mathematically together.
- Be aware of working memory challenges.
- Does the student need to keep track of too much information at once to solve a task?
- Does the task require the mastery of too many skills at once?
- Pay extra attention to students with reading difficulties so that tasks with a lot of text do not ruin their joy of mathematics.
- Remember to repeat.
- Talk to the students about the value of repetition.
- Tell them that they can train their brains to understand mathematics.
- Solve fun math problems together.
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