Illustration: Vsevolod Shvaiba
Why does a modern person need a mathematician? After all, we have calculators, computers and even artificial intelligence. But it turns out that the solution of mathematical problems carries many functions that are not obvious to us.
For example, it promotes self-regulation of emotions and a growth mindset. Ultimately, it makes us more efficient and happier. And this, you see, will not interfere even with the most notorious humanities scholar, whose brain, however, is not denounced by anything from the brain of a mathematician.
Don’t worry about your math problems.
Believe me, mine are much more serious.
The data released by the Ukrainian Center for Education Quality Assessment made a real sensation in Ukraine. 31.11% of the 244,839 graduates who took part in the testing failed the External Independent Testing (EIT) in mathematics. This is almost 2.5 times more than last year.
I must say that Ukraine is not alone in this trend. For example, the United States, being the technological leader of the modern world, does not fall, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, in the 30 most “mathematical” countries. One could simply state that the prestige of mathematics education is declining.
And if modern children are not interested in mathematics, then perhaps they will prove themselves in other areas of knowledge. However, this problem cannot be dismissed so easily. Scientists have found that negative changes occur in the brains of adolescents who refuse to study mathematics, which lead to a delay in mental and cognitive development.
Choosing not in favor of formulas and numbers
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published the information of the British research comparing the brains of those who stopped learning mathematics and those who continued to do it. The fact is that, as a rule, the school system does not allow students to choose for themselves which subjects to learn and which not. However, in the UK, upon reaching the age of 16, students receive this right. As a result, many people give up studying mathematics.
Not only in Foggy Albion, but around the world, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 54% of boys and 65% of girls find math difficult. But how harmless is it for the brain to abandon it? This is exactly what they decided to find out at the Department of Experimental Psychology at Oxford University.
Acid and neuroplasticity
To conduct the experiment, they invited 133 students aged 14 to 18 years. The researchers were interested in the amount of gamma-aminobutyric acid in the brains of the subjects. It is this chemical found in a specific area of the brain that makes it plastic. That is, it allows you to perform such cognitive functions as problem solving, learning, memorization, reasoning, etc.
Before some of the teens dropped out of math, their brain chemistry was no different from the rest. But then the amount of gamma-aminobutyric acid began to decrease. In addition, by tracking the dynamics of quantitative changes in acid, scientists have learned quite accurately to predict the success or failure of subjects in the mathematical sciences. It turns out that sometimes it is enough to exclude just one component from education, and this will significantly affect not only the behavior and abilities of the adolescent, but also his future.
Mathematics and emotional strategies
Another group of scientists from the American Duke University found that doing mathematics promotes mental health. Solving mathematical problems, in fact, stabilizes the emotional sphere and includes the mechanisms of psychological and emotional self-regulation. That is, it opens the way to a harmonious and happy life, without breakdowns in anxiety and depression. Scientists are even thinking about creating a kind of “mathematics therapy”, since the ability of the brain to perform calculations correlates with the ability to regulate emotions, such as fear and anger.
Scientists came to such conclusions by measuring the brain activity of 186 students using MRI while solving mathematical problems. They still do not fully understand why this is happening. But it is clear that mathematics stimulates the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex of the brain, which ultimately leads to the development of the ability to control their emotions аnd thoughts in difficult life situations. It has also been found that the activity of this area of the brain reduces the risk of mental illness.
Is the “humanitarian” brain a myth?
It is estimated that about 25% of humanity has an irresistible aversion to mathematics. Often this rejection turns into “mathematical anxiety” – a state close to a panic attack, when it is necessary to calculate something, but the person is afraid to make a mistake. Oxford professor of mathematics Marcus du Sautoy is convinced that there is no “humanitarian”, “non-mathematical” mindset. In fact, dyscalculia – the mathematical analogue of dyslexia – affects no more than 5% of the human population.
Mathematics is built into the biology of most animals and even fish to one degree or another. Man is no exception. Mathematics is born of the ability to see patterns in the world around us. This skill is very important for survival, and therefore, strengthening in the course of evolution, has developed to the ability to manipulate abstract numbers. French neuroscientist Stanislas Diheyn found that the linguistic parts of the brain are actively involved in precise calculations. And in this sense, the humanitarian is no different from the mathematician.
Fixed mindset and growth mindset
American psychologist Carol S. Dweck discovered two types of thinking: fixed (ability is a static, unchanging given) and growth thinking (talent can be developed with effort). Math skills are developed differently for different people, but 95% are able to master math at least at the level of the school curriculum. It is a fixed mindset and a lack of self-confidence that is the cause of many mathematical failures.
According to Dweck, fixed thinking is common in 40% of children. The same number have a “growth mindset”, the remaining 20% are of a mixed type. The latest research suggests that the brain can grow, adapt and change. Under the influence of solving complex mathematical problems, the brain begins to “reprogram” and increase in volume within three weeks. This means that not only children, but also adults are able to transform fixed thinking into growth thinking.