Home > Educational Neuroscience > Everyone Can Do Mathematics

Everyone Can Do Mathematics

Human beings are born with some remarkable capabilities. One is language. In just a few years after birth, toddlers are carrying on running conversations without the benefit of direct instruction. Over the next few years, their sentences become more complex, and their vocabulary grows exponentially. By the age of 10, they understand about 10,000 words and speak their native language with 95 percent accuracy. Another innate talent is number sense—the ability to determine the number of objects in a small collection, to count, and to perform simple addition and subtraction, also without direct instruction. Yet, by the age of 10 some of these children are already saying, “I can’t do math!” But you never hear them saying, “I can’t do language!” Why this difference? One reason is that spoken language and number sense are survival skills; abstract mathematics is not. In elementary schools we present complicated notions and procedures to a brain that was first designed for survival in the African savanna. Human culture and society have changed a lot in the last 5,000 years, but the human brain has not. So how does the brain cope when faced with a task, such as multiplying a pair of two-digit numbers, for which it was not prepared? Thanks to modern imaging devices that can look inside the living brain, we can see which cerebral circuits are called into play when the brain tackles a task for which it has limited innate capabilities. The fact that the human brain can rise to this challenge is testimony to its remarkable ability to assess its environment and make calculations that can safely land humans on the moon and put a space probe around a planet hundreds of millions of miles away.

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