Study shows maths experts are 'made, not born'

Maths supremo Yusnier Viera.

(Medical Xpress)—A new study of the brain of a maths supremo supports Darwin's belief that intellectual excellence is largely due to "zeal and hard work" rather than inherent ability.

University of Sussex took fMRI scans of champion 'mental calculator' Yusnier Viera during arithmetical tasks that were either familiar or unfamiliar to him and found that his did not behave in an extraordinary or unusual way.

The paper, published this week (23 September 2013) in PloS One, provides scientific evidence that some calculation abilities are a matter of practice. Co-author Dr Natasha Sigala says: "This is a message of hope for all of us. Experts are made, not born."

Cuban-born Yusnier holds world records for being able to name the days of the week for any dates of the past 400 years, giving his answer in less than a second. This is the kind of ability sometimes found in those with autism, although Yusnier is not on the autistic spectrum. Unlike those with autism or the related condition Asperger's, he is able to explain exactly how he calculates his answers – and even teaches his system and has written books on the subject.

The study, carried out at the Clinical Imaging Sciences Centre on the University of Sussex campus, suggests that Yusnier has honed his ability to create short cuts to his answers by storing information in the middle part of the brain specialised for long-term (the and surrounding cortex). This type of memory helps us carry out tasks in our area of expertise with speed and efficiency.

Although the left side of his brain was activated during – which is normal for all brains – the scientists observed that something slightly different happened when Yusnier was presented with unfamiliar problems.

The scans showed marked connectivity of the anterior (prefrontal cortex), which are involved in decision making, during the unfamiliar calculations. This supports Yusnier's report that he was building in an extra step to his mental processes to turn an unfamiliar problem into a familiar one. His answers to the unfamiliar questions had an 80 per cent degree of accuracy (compared with more than 90 per cent for familiar questions) and his responses were slightly slower.

Dr Sigala explains: "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."

She adds: "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. As put by Charles Darwin to Francis Galton: ' […] I have always maintained that, excepting fools, men did not differ much in intellect, only in zeal and hard work; I still think this an eminently important difference.'"

More information: Minati, L. and Sigala, N. Effective connectivity reveals strategy differences in an expert calculator, PloS One. www.plosone.org/article/info%3… journal.pone.0073746

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Emotional adjustment following traumatic brain injury

1 hour ago

Life after a traumatic brain injury resulting from a car accident, a bad fall or a neurodegenerative disease changes a person forever. But the injury doesn't solely affect the survivor – the lives of their spouse or partner ...

New ALS associated gene identified using innovative strategy

Oct 22, 2014

Using an innovative exome sequencing strategy, a team of international scientists led by John Landers, PhD, at the University of Massachusetts Medical School has shown that TUBA4A, the gene encoding the Tubulin Alpha 4A protein, ...

User comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

verkle
1 / 5 (19) Sep 25, 2013
Darwin's belief that intellectual excellence is largely due to "zeal and hard work" rather than inherent ability.


What has Darwin to do with this? Anyway, people who took Darwin seriously became folks like the Nazis, who thought that Germans were all inherently better than other peoples. And also the eugenicists. This is opposite of what the article states.

Can anyone state one good thing that has come from Darwin and others who believe in evolution?

krundoloss
2 / 5 (12) Sep 25, 2013
Darwin opened the worlds eyes to a complex system of life. Evolution seems far fetched, but you have to realize even very tiny changes, repeating, over extremely long periods of time, can lead to very different outcomes.

In regards to your Nazi comment, even though certain races are better at some things than other races, it does not make any one race "better". Is a Honda Accord "better" than a Jeep Wrangler? Is Neptune "better" than Venus? Something being better than something else is a human construct, and has no place in the real world.

We are on the verge of learning how to grow our own artificial life forms, or build machines with self assembly. Evolution is very much real, as we can recreate it ourselves. How can you deny it then?
verkle
1 / 5 (13) Sep 25, 2013
What happened to my earlier comment? I had stated that the first 4 people (now 5 people) gave me a "1" and no one had offered any kind of response to my honest questions. I thought Science was a field where you can freely ask honest questions and expect people to respond. But here at Physorg, many "scientists" respond with slurs and curse words.

Anyway, editors, why was my earlier comment removed from this site?

Lurker2358
1 / 5 (10) Sep 26, 2013
Krundoloss:

You can't "create" a proof of Darwinian evolution, silly since by definition it must occur by random chance, without an intelligent designer or manipulator involved.

Whatever you've done in a laboratory is actually evidence of creation/design, not evolution.

You're just too blind to see it.

If I'm cooking spaghetti sauce, and I put the right ingredients in at the right time and in the right proportions, I get a great sauce. That's design, not random.

Evolution, on the other hand, would require that a sauce randomly throws itself together from random ingredients, cooks itself, and then after a few million or billion random failures one half-decent sauce accidentally emerges spontaneously.

Look how foolish your beliefs are. You think "creationists" are the village idiots, when that couldn't be farther from the truth. In fact, you atheists are the village idiots, and a common, real world example shows you why.
AdamCC
5 / 5 (2) Sep 27, 2013
Wow ... Verkle's comment is remarkably inane, and yet kurdoloss fails completely in correcting him ... quality stuff going on here.

Good thing that came from Darwin et. al.: understanding of the world around us. That simple.

The Nazi statement is absurd, and Krundoloss's response to it is off base. The problem with the statement is that it has absolutely no bearing in reality and nothing to do with the veracity of evolution.
Koen
1 / 5 (7) Sep 29, 2013
So the movie "Good Will Hunting" is pure fiction. Math ability and creativity does not come from reading a fews books. Practising math (the hard work) is needed to become "good". However, jealousy and envy in academia is very real. My career was destroyed by jealous people.