Who hasn’t dreamed one day that math would be removed from the school curriculum? And yet… A recent scientific study could convince you of the usefulness of studying the subject on the brain.
While school reforms tend to make math no longer compulsory, stopping to study it could affect brain development for students aged 16 to 18. Indeed, at this age, the brain is not fully developed and would be permanently affected. This is what a study conducted by researchers in experimental psychology at the University of Oxford published in the journal PNAS reveals.
How does the brain develop according to school subjects?
In England, students in the last two years of secondary school already have the option of not selecting the subject. The neuroscientists therefore had no trouble recruiting guinea pigs for their research. They created two groups of students, one with those who continue math, the other with those who have stopped. The objective? To compare the evolution of their brains according to the school subjects studied.
Researchers George Zacharopoulos, Francesco Sella and Roi Cohen Kadosh analyzed the brain data of 113 teenagers aged 14 to 18 by subjecting them to various tests and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). This scanner used by neuroscientists measures the activity of different areas of the brain.
Two regions that play a role in our computational abilities have particularly attracted their attention: the intraparietal sulcus and the middle frontal gyrus. They were particularly interested in the presence of two neurotransmitters that manage the excitation and inhibition of neurons, glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid (Gaba). Gaba has a crucial role in brain plasticity and the middle frontal gyrus is one of the areas that affect memory, learning and problem-solving. Now, with the scientific terms in place, let’s move on to the facts.
Neural and cognitive development at stake
The first result is not very surprising: students who have stopped taking maths do less well on calculation and mathematical reasoning tests than others. Oxford researchers have shown that there is a link between the levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid present in the middle frontal gyrus and the fact of studying (or not) the subject. In fact, teenagers who stopped studying mathematics had significantly lower levels of Gaba than mathematicians.
But the finding of the scientific team is not only biological but also societal: “We show that, in a society, such decisions can alter neural development and cognitive development. In turn, this may introduce an advantage for individuals and societies that have instituted compulsory mathematics education up to high school graduation,” explains Professor Cohen Kadosh.
An impact on the brain and behavior
But what does this mean in concrete terms? The scientist answers: “While we still don’t know the long-term influence of this interruption, our study provides an important understanding of how the lack of a single component of education, math, can impact the brain and behavior,” he says. “Math skills are associated with a range of benefits that include employment, socioeconomic status and mental and physical health.” No small feat, then.
“Adolescence is an important period of life that is associated with significant brain and cognitive changes,” continues the neuroscientist. Unfortunately, the ability to stop studying math at this age seems to lead to a gap between adolescents. Our study provides a new level of biological understanding of the impact of education on the developing brain and the mutual effects between biology and education,” he concluded.