Wordless math

For years now, one strand of cognitive theory has argued that language and math are entwined in our brain’s circuitry. For example, some studies of brain activity have shown that when people were given sums to calculate, the left frontal lobe — an area generally related to verbal language — would light up. According to this theory, if you lost your ability to handle language, you’d also lose your mathematical ability.

But that may not be true, as some UK scientists have shown. They took a bunch of people with severe aphasia: They couldn’t speak or understand grammatical language. “Grammatical” is the big deal here; these people’s problems were not with understanding the meaning of individual words, but with understanding their correct order. They knew what “lion” and “man” and “hunted” meant individually, but wouldn’t be able to figure out the difference between the sentences “The lion hunted the man” and “The man hunted the lion”.

So the scientists gave these patients mathematical sums with different structures — such as “52 minus 11” and “11 minus 52” — they had no problem understanding that they were different expressions with different meanings. Apparently, mathematical grammar must rely on brain circuitry slightly different from that that parses verbal grammar. As Rosemary Varley, one of the scientists from the University of Sheffieldone, told the BBC:

“Despite profound language deficits these guys showed advanced cognitive abilities, which indicates considerable autonomy between language and thinking.”

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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