by Katy McDowall
How do children go from counting on their fingers to using their memory to solve math problems? It all comes down to changes in the brain, says a study released this week by the Stanford University School of Medicine.
Using brain imaging, the study looked at brain scans of 28 children (ages 7–9) with normal IQs solving simple math problems—each child received a second scan about a year after the first. Researchers were able to see that the hippocampus (the brain’s memory center) becomes more active and connected to other parts of the brain as children gain more problem-solving skills. Parts of the prefrontal and parietal cortex (regions involved in counting) become less active. The hippocampus acts as a “scaffold for learning and consolidating facts into long-term memory,” according to Dr. Vinod Menon, senior author of the study.
The findings give “the first evidence . . . to explain how the brain reorganizes itself as children learn math facts,” and also reveal more insight into how children’s brains differ from adults’. (Adults solve math problems by pulling facts from “well-developed information stores in the neocortex.”)
More than that, researchers believe the study will be crucial in determining what happens in the brains of children with math-learning disabilities.
“Is it that the hippocampus can’t provide a reliable scaffold to build good representations of math facts in other parts of the brain during early stages of learning, and so the child continues to use inefficient strategies to solve math problems?” asks Menon. “We want to test this.”