How do we learn how much of something makes up something?  We are hardwired to be able to quantify amounts — that tree has more fruit than the other; that river is faster than the one upstream; that basket can hold more corn than that pail — but how is the next step learned between that quantification and the ability to divide, subtract and multiply using cognitive and associate math that even preschoolers can comprehend?

There are researchers who are working hard to understand the association between native perception and cognitive math:

In a series of recent imaging studies, scientists have discovered that a sliver of the parietal cortex, on the surface of the brain about an inch above the ears, is particularly active when the brain judges quantity. In this area, called the intraparietal sulcus, clusters of neurons are sensitive to the sight of specific quantities, research suggests. Some fire vigorously at the sight of five objects, for instance, less so at the sight of four or six, and not at all at two or nine. Others are most active in response to one, two, three, and so on.

When engaged in a lesson or exercise, these regions actively communicate with areas of the frontal lobe, where planning and critical thinking are centered.

“This is what we believe focused math education does: It sharpens the firing of these quantity neurons,” said Stanislas Dehaene, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Collège de France in Paris and author of the books “The Number Sense” and “Reading and the Brain.” The firing of the number neurons becomes increasingly more selective to single quantities, he said; and these cells apparently begin to communicate with neurons across the brain in language areas, connecting precise quantities to words: “two,” “ten,” “five.”

A similar honing process is thought to occur when young children begin to link letter shapes and their associated sounds. Cells in the visual cortex wired to recognize shapes specialize in recognizing letters; these cells communicate with neurons in the auditory cortex as the letters are associated with sounds.

Too often math skills are decided to be too hard to master and kids get labeled early on in their education as “Not a Math Person” and, for some reason, that label is allowed and accepted.

We would never accept the same sort of labeling for — “Not a Book Reader” or “Not a Writer” or “Not a Runner” — because we believe children should be able to read, write and exercise.

Why, then, when it comes to math — do we so easily give them a pass from basic comprehension? 

It is because those doing the teaching and the labeling are “Not Math People” as well? 

If that is the case, how can we begin to get the power “Not Math People” majority to value a skill they never mastered?


  1. It always gets me a little blue when I hear someone talking about not being math capable and I think, I wonder how old they were when that was drilled into their head… and then I see them do things that make it clear to me that they are math capable.

  2. It was definitely drilled into my head, Gordon, and I really mourn the fact that I am not more math-centric. It’s just too easy for parents to say to their kids, “Oh, we’re not good at math in this family” and then let that causal comment become the family standard. Just because a parent is rotten at math doesn’t mean the child has to be, too.

  3. I think so…
    My mother was good at math but not equally effective teaching the same and my father was brilliant but simply didn’t have the patience. It’s actually one of my teachers who actually got me interested in it. She taught me how to find the “why” of any math problem and then find the solution – without comprehending this math is a disastrer.

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