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Being Good at Math Requires Zeal and a lot of Hard-work

Sep 25, 2013 09:58 AM EDT

People aren't born geniuses, but master a subject through extended interest and working hard at it, a new study has found.

The study was conducted by researchers at University of Sussex. The team found that the brains of math experts have no unique connections or difference in brain activity when compared to brains of regular folks. Researchers argue that the study provides evidence that practice can make people good at math.

Previous research by Stevenson & Lee has shown that kids in Asian countries score higher in math mostly because they are pushed to practice than be dependent on their innate ability to understand math concepts.

"This is a message of hope for all of us. Experts are made, not born," said Natasha Sigala, co-author of the study.

In the study, scientists hooked Yusnier Viera to a brain scanner. Viera is a math wizard and is famous for retaining large amounts of data in his brain. Also, he has no known medical condition like autism that may explain his brilliance.

Researchers found that Viera stores a lot of information in the middle part of the brain- the region that holds long-term working memory.  The brain scans were taken when he was working on familiar and unfamiliar problems.

The left side of his brain was highly active when solving familiar problems, which is similar to brain activity seen in normal people. However, when he was solving unfamiliar problems, the decision-making part of the brain- the prefrontal cortex lit-up. The brain scans support the idea that he has developed the ability to turn unfamiliar problems into familiar ones by long-term practice.

He solved familiar problems with over 90 percent accuracy and solved unfamiliar problems with an accuracy of about 80 percent.

"Although this kind of ability is seen among some people with autism, it is much rarer in those not on that spectrum. Brain scans of those with autism tend to show a variety of activity patterns, and autistic people are not able to explain how they reach their answer. With Yusnier, however, it is clear that his expertise is a result of long-term practice - and motivation," said Dr Sigala.

"It was beyond the scope of our paper to discuss the debate on deliberate practice vs. innate ability.  But our study does not provide evidence for specific innate ability for mental calculations," Dr Sigala added.

The study is published in the journal PLOS One.

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