Wednesday, September 23, 2020
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Brain scans suggest memorizing those times tables

Memorizing your times tables in third grade may have a basis in brain research, suggesting that some of our old ways of teaching the 3 Rs were worth keeping.

Research out of the Catholic University of Louvain (in Dutch, “KU Leuven”) suggests that 12-year-olds with more development in a brain region involved with memorization can add and multiply better than those with less development in that region. Researchers found no connection between this brain region and students’ ability to subtract or divide, though.

The study, entitled “Left fronto-parietal white matter correlates with individual differences in children’s ability to solve additions and multiplications: A tractography study,” is published in the journal NeuroImage, here.

Scientists performed brain scans on a group of 12-year-olds while asking them to perform different arithmetic calculations in their head. They then linked the brain scans with the kids’ test performance.

They discovered that scores on tests involving addition and multiplication were positively correlated with the quality of white matter in a certain brain region. The quality of white matter in that region showed no correlation to scores on the division or subtraction tasks.

In the brain, “gray” cells are the neurons that process information. The neurons in tracts, like electrical cables in a bundle, are covered with a sheath called myelin. This sheath appears white under a microscope, so nervous pathways or tracts that are well coated with myelin are known as “white matter” in the brain.

As with electrical wires, the coating helps the underlying neurons process signals and transmit them faster to their destination. That is, the more myelin—and the more neurons as well—the better the brain processes signals in that pathway.

“We found that a better quality of the arcuate fasciculus anterior—a white matter tract that connects brain regions often used for arithmetic—corresponds to better performance in adding and multiplying, while there is no correlation for subtracting and dividing,” said educational neuroscientist Bert de Smedt, one of the study’s authors who serves on the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences at the university.

“A possible explanation for this is that this white matter bundle is involved in rote memorization, whereas when we subtract and divide, such memorization plays less of a role. When subtracting and dividing we are more likely to use intermediary steps to calculate the solution, even as adults,” he added.

Reading proficiency and arithmetic proficiency often go hand-in-hand, the study’s authors report. “The white matter tract that we studied also plays an important role in reading: when we learn to read, we have to memorize the correspondence between particular letters and the sound they represent,” Dr de Smedt said.

“This also might explain why we often see arithmetic problems in children with dyslexia. Likewise, children with dyscalculia often have trouble reading.”

KU Leuven, which is in Belgium, is the oldest Catholic university in the world and the oldest university of any kind in the lowlands of Europe.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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