If you’re an artsy kind of person, it can sometimes feel like your brain just isn’t wired for stuff like math or science. You can rhapsodize for weeks about the transformative brutality of Picasso’s Guernica but the second you hear something like “two plus four is six,” your brain just returns the neurological equivalent of an error 404.
Well, it turns out there might be a reason for that. New research published in the Journal of Neuroscience has shown that even when math problems are spoken aloud, your brain processes them entirely different from normal speech.
Study co-authors Jonathan Z Simon and Joshua Kulasingham told IFLScience that it is widely known that the left hemisphere is more associated in language processing. Their work is also consistent with this, as they found sentence reactions predominantly in the left hemisphere. Conversely, responses to equations occurred in both hemispheres, which is consistent with previous studies showing that arithmetic processing is more bilateral.
The team invited 22 test subjects to a “cocktail party” in a magnetoencephalography (MEG) machine to find out how the brain copes with talking math.
Technically, it wasn’t a real cocktail party – it was called a “cocktail party paradigm”. The experiment, named after the confusing, overlapping noise you hear when you have several people at a party all talking about different, unrelated topics, involved playing two recordings of conversations at the same time and watching how their brains fired as they tried to understand one or the other. One recording played a simple four-word sentence such as “children like sweet food” or “cats drink warm milk”, while the other recording played someone reading a simple mathematical equation – something like “two plus two is four” or “eight minus six is two”.
These are simple enough to follow in isolation, but combine them and you’re faced with pointless confusion.
It’s unlikely that you’ll have a spare MRI machine to spare, but if you did, you’d have seen your brain light up just then and relatively predictably. So predictably, in fact, that the team of authors of the paper could have told what kind of voice you were listening to – and how well you could pick out the bullshit – just by looking at your brain scans.
The brain observes high-level sentence and equation structures, but only when it’s being paid attention to. In each case, these high-level responses are in language processing (left ventricle) and arithmetic processing (bilateral parietal lobes). The work of Kulasingham and Simon confirmed that overlapping but distinct cortical networks are involved in language and arithmetic processing, and that these networks can be well separated during an auditory attention task.
The speech bombardment that the study participants listened to may have been confusing, but from a scientific perspective it is inspiring. Previous work in this area has often used more ‘monolithic’ constructs, and this meant that the brain was not forced to prioritize.
By asking the brain to do more than one thing at a time, we can better distinguish which parts of the brain are most critical to the primary task. More traditional experiments allow areas of the brain that wouldn’t normally be involved in processing to be involved anyway (because there’s no reason not to be).
“However, the ‘Experiment of Experimentation’ allowed the team to observe how the brain processes concepts independent of language – in this case arithmetic. But there are many other possibilities that open up some very intriguing questions.
In principle, the same technique could even be used to see if an animal can learn to use the rules of an abstract system without having to actively demonstrate this knowledge. It will also be interesting to study how the brain keeps track of these sentences and equations.
Let us know in the comments section if you have ever thought that your brain processes arithmetic differently.