The next time you are asked to test your math computational skills with the dreaded "Mad Minute" test, do not groan and moan! According to Stanford scientists, it is the mastery of these basic facts that will help transform you into math whizzes, as you grow older! And given that they have peeked inside the brains of elementary school-age kids, adolescents and adults, they should know.
Previous research has shown that most kids move away from counting with their fingers and use their memories to answer simple math problems, by the time they are 8-9 years old. However, some are just much better and faster at recalling the solutions to simple multiplication, division, addition or subtraction problems, than others. Those kids are also the ones that do better in this often-dreaded subject, as they get older.
Curious to find out why some kids are better at memory retrieval than others, a team of researchers led by Dr. Vinod Menon, a psychiatry professor at Stanford University, put together a test group of 28 kids, aged 7- 9 years old. Each student was placed inside a simple brain-scanning MRI machine fitted with a screen that projected simple math equations like "3 + 4 = 7" or "2 x 2 = 4". All the kids had to do, was press a button to indicate if the answer was right or wrong. The scientists recorded the response time and also, the region of the brain that showed activity, right before they pressed the button.
The test was then repeated with the kids standing in front of the scientists, who observed them to see if they moved their lips or counted with their fingers, before pressing the right or wrong button. Both the tests were performed again on the same kids a year later, using the same parameters.
The scientists found that as the kids grew older, their response time to the same basic questions became faster and more accurate, since they were able to recall the answers from memory. What was even more interesting is that the difference was reflected in the brains. The scientists noticed that there was less activity in the prefrontal and parietal sections that researchers have long associated with counting and more, in the hippocampus. This area of the brain is like a relay station, one where short-term memories reside, before being shipped to long-term storage, for later retrieval.
According to Dr. Menon, who published the results in Nature neuroscience on August 17th, the kids with the fastest response times were those whose hippocampal connections showed the most robust activity. That means that while their facts were not yet committed to long-term memory, they had been practiced enough times to enable them to be easily retrieved from the transitional or short-term memory.
However, that was not where the study ended. The researchers than selected 20 adolescents and 20 adults and put them through the same tests. This time around, there was no activity in either the hippocampal, prefrontal or parietal sections. Instead, the brain automatically reached out to the long-term memory bank and retrieved the answers almost instantly, with very little effort.
Dr. Kathy Mann Koepe of the National Institutes of Health that sponsored the study, says that this is because the brain becomes more efficient with time - She likens memorizing basic math skills to starting with a bumpy green field. As you walk over it repeatedly, it becomes a smooth, grass-free path, making it easy to traverse from start to finish. According to her, if the brain doesn't have to work hard at calculating simple math, it has more working memory to process harder concepts. The expert's advice? Drilling kids on simple addition and multiplication may pay off in the long run. Also, while this study focused on math, Dr. Koepe believes the same principles are applicable when learning any subject.
While these findings may be new to scientists, they probably aren't to the millions of educators that have been handing out "50 in a minute" tests for years!
Dr. Menon now plans to take his study further, by investigating brain activity in kids that have math learning disabilities, so that scientists can find new strategies to help them excel in the subject.
Resources: dailymail.co.uk, news.yahoo.com