How Does a Mathematician’s Brain Differ from That of a Mere Mortal?

Alan Turing, Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, John Nash—these “beautiful” minds never fail to enchant the public, but they also remain somewhat elusive. How do some people progress from being able to perform basic arithmetic to grasping advanced mathematical concepts and thinking at levels of abstraction that baffle the rest of the population? Neuroscience has now begun to pin down whether the brain of a math wiz somehow takes conceptual thinking to another level. Specifically, scientists have long debated whether the basis of high-level mathematical thought is tied to the brain’s language-processing centers—that thinking at such a level of abstraction requires linguistic representation and an understanding of syntax—or to independent regions associated with number and spatial reasoning. In a study published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,…


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