Penelope Wei, a sophomore at Brooklyn Technical High School, is taking a math test. As she takes the test, a team of neuroscientists and engineers from NYU Tandon School of Engineering are scanning her brain using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology.
This is part of the Project Common Sense study, an initiative by NYU Tandon to understand how the human brain makes sense of the world around us.
Penelope is participating in the project as one of its test subjects. She and other participants spend time in an fMRI machine while performing everyday tasks like reading, listening, talking, and thinking. The machine records activity in parts of the brain associated with these activities.
Using this data, researchers can determine what parts of the brain are at work during these activities. This helps identify how our brains make sense of the world around us.
Parietal lobe math
Penelope is performing a simple math task: adding fractions. But how she’s doing it reveals something about the parts of her brain that are at work.
A growing body of research shows that the parietal lobe in the back of the brain is involved in math. Nerve cells in this area process spatial information, including numbers.
In a recent study, scientists showed people pictures of number symbols and asked them to arrange them in order. This sort of test tests the kind of spatial understanding necessary for math.
People with damage to the parietal lobe have trouble with tasks like counting and organizing objects, according to research from the University of New Brunswick.
Occipital lobe math
Penelope is taking a math test, but her brain is working hard before she even picks up the pencil. Her visual cortex is processing the images on the test and her occipital lobe is processing the mathematical symbols and processing them into fractions.
Penelope’s brain has learned how to process visual information and communicate this information to other parts of the brain. This ability developed over time as she grew up and her connections strengthened.
In addition to the visual cortex, other areas of the brain are involved in arithmetic operations. The parietal lobes are connected to geometry and numbers, while the temporal lobes handle memory. All of these areas work together to make arithmetic possible.
Arithmetic comes easily for some people, but for others it can be difficult.
Frontal lobe fractions
The frontal lobe is the part of the brain that is located just behind your forehead. It is divided into four sections called lobes: the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the orbitofrontal cortex, the anterior prefrontal cortex, and the medial prefrontal cortex.
Fractions are a mathematical concept that requires understanding of arithmetic operations and values. Penelope was asked to solve arithmetic problems involving fractions while taking a test that measured her working memory capacity.
Working memory is the ability to hold and process information in your mind for a period of time. This ability relies on the functioning of several different parts of your brain, including the frontal lobe.
As part of her test, Penelope had to solve arithmetic problems involving fractions for five minutes. Her responses were then recorded and analyzed by researchers to see which parts of her brain were at work during this time period.
Parietal lobe fractions
Penelope is solving a math problem that requires her to add fractions. As she does this, her brain is processing information in several different parts of her brain.
The parietal lobe is located in the upper part of the brain just behind the frontal and temporal lobes. It processes sensory information such as touch, pain, and body position.
How? As Penelope writes down the answer, her parietal lobe is telling her hand how to form the fraction. Her parietal lobe is also telling her how to sense where the paper is and how to move her pencil to write down the answer.
The parietal lobe also plays a role in mathematics, particularly with numbers and geometry (such as calculating surface area or determining which way is north).
Occipital lobe fractions
Another part of the brain that plays a role in math is the occipital lobe. This part of the brain processes visual information, such as shapes and patterns.
Many students struggle with math because they lack a basic understanding of the symbols used to represent numbers and operations.
For example, many students do not understand what a fraction represents or how to add and subtract them. In order to solve these problems, you need to have a firm grasp on the concept of ratios.
In elementary school, teachers often focus on teaching how to add and subtract numbers without really emphasizing the importance of understanding what fractions represent. This could possibly lead to confusion about how to solve problems involving fractions.
Penelope is taking a math test so she is definitely going to be testing her knowledge of fractions against her peers.