Mathematical problems presented in words are logically equivalent to those presented as numbers, but as many students may have suspected, the brain does not approach the two formats in the same way. A brain imaging study in the November issue of Nature Neuroscience confirms this intuition, showing that word problems engage the anterior prefrontal cortex, while the same problems presented numerically engage the posterior parietal cortex.
The authors asked whether students presented with mathematical problems in different formats would convert them to a common abstract representation, or whether the format of the problem would influence how the brain processed the information. Although the two groups got a similar number of correct answers, brain imaging indicated that they took different routes to get there. The authors conclude that the brain is able to choose between alternative neural representations to achieve the same efficiency of problem solving, and that equivalent behavioral performance does not imply equivalent neural strategies.
Myeong-Ho Sohn (George Washington University, Washington, DC, USA)
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(C) Nature Neuroscience press release.
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