Study: Children’s Brains Change as They Learn Mental Math

August 29, 2014

“No fingers, no calculators, and no pencils.”

Teachers everywhere can be heard saying this refrain before drilling students on math facts, and a new study has shown how students’ brains change as their mental math skills improve.

“We wanted to understand how children acquire new knowledge, and determine why some children learn to retrieve facts from memory better than others,” Vinod Menon, PhD, a Stanford University professor and the senior author of the study, said in an article on the Stanford School of Medicine blog.

The study, published this month in Nature Neuroscience, examined the brain activity of children while performing simple math problems during two functional magnetic resonance imaging scans performed, on average, 1.2 years apart. The researchers also compared these results to the brain activity of adolescents and adults when performing the same math tasks.

They found that when students aged from eight to nine years old, they also transitioned from counting to retrieving facts to find the answer as the region of the brain responsible for shaping new memories, the hippocampus, showed more activity. The hippocampus functions as a train stop for data; information is held there in working memory before being sent to other places for long-term storage.

The areas responsible for counting, specifically parts of the prefrontal and parietal cortex, were activated less. Interestingly, the tests also showed that students who were able to quickly retrieve math facts from memory also had stronger connections between the hippocampus and other parts of the brain.

Adolescents and adults, however, did not activate the hippocampus during the exercise, instead relying on the long-term memory of the neocortex.

“What this means is that the hippocampus is providing a scaffold for learning and consolidating facts into long-term memory in children,” said Menon. “In adults this scaffold is not needed because memory for math facts has most likely been consolidated into the neocortex.”

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