Inside Carol Vorderman's head
by Roger Highfield
The Daily Telegraph: 3rd September, 2003.
How could I pass up the chance to witness the most revealing pictures ever
taken of Carol Vorderman ? The star of Channel 4's Countdown has always
had a love of numbers and has been an enthusiastic backer of high-profile
efforts to boost numeracy, from workbooks for parents and children to
meetings to lobby the Prime Minister. Now I was to join a select group of
neuroscientists who want to lay bare her mind, to riffle through the
neurons of one of the few television stars more famous for her brains
than her face. With luck, we would discover why she has a head for figures.
For a lecture series run by The Telegraph and the healthcare company
Novartis, and funded by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and
the Arts (Nesta) , Vorderman - a former Nesta trustee - had agreed to
allow Dr Mark Lythgoe and his colleagues at University College London to
reveal the inner workings of her brain.
And the reward for Britain's highest-paid female television presenter? A
mug that invites others to have their brains scanned at UCL, a bouquet and
an opportunity to help publicise the Visions of Science Photographic
Awards, which provide stunning images to accompany Dr Lythgoe's
forthcoming lectures on whether mathematicians are born or made.
Vorderman first showed an interest in numbers when she was three, during
her impoverished upbringing in Wales. Her talents were recognised by her
"superb" maths teacher, Mr Parry, who wrote that "she has a mastery of
computation which should prove profitable".
She was the first woman to appear on Channel 4 when it launched, and has
been there ever since, performing mental arithmetic as her party trick.
Though she protests that she is no maths prodigy, she is dubbed
"telly brainbox" by the tabloids and has such a high success rate that
when she does fluff her maths (for instance, how to calculate 959 using
75,2,9,1,10 and 4) she makes headlines.
Because the Countdown format has remained the same for two decades, she
gets letters from stroke victims and patients who measure their recovery
by their ability to solve the programme's puzzles over the course of their
rehabilitation. By the same means, she has found that age and childbirth
have slowed down her own maths speed.
To find out more about her brain, she became the first celebrity client of
UCL's Institute of Cognitive Neuro-science last week for a series of scans
under the guidance of Prof Brian Butterworth and Dr Lythgoe.
In the basement of the Wellcome Department of Imaging Neuroscience ,
Vorderman was trundled into the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner,
understandably anxious about what the scientists might find. A powerful
magnetic field (30,000 times that of the Earth's magnetic field) was
generated by the scanner, lining up the spins of atomic nuclei in her
brain. The striking contrast in the final image was obtained by detecting
radio signals emitted by spinning nuclei.
The first "functional" MRI experiment, undertaken by Dr Fulvia Castelli,
looked at brain activity by detecting tiny changes in blood oxygenation in
her parietal sulcu s when she was asked to think of the number and
quantity of something, say the number of cubes of sugar versus how much
sugar there is.
So as not to clutter the scan with activity in her language areas (the
left half of her brain), Vorderman was not presented with numbers but
collections of red and green rectangles and asked to judge their overall
number and length. A second task saw her attempting to judge whether two
arrangements of rectangles of different shades were the same, an idealised
version of placing a series of numbers in sequence. "Of all the tests, I
found this the most difficult," she said. "The images were on the screen
for such a short time it was impossible to analyse them."
"Carol had probably never encountered this test, which is designed to
bypass all learning and education to show a core cognitive system, one we
possibly share with animals," said Dr Castelli.
The second experiment, organised by Joey Tang, examined another basic
skill - interpreting numerals. Vorderman smiled with relief because the
experiment used numbers again, not patterns.
She was presented with a quick succession of number pairs and then asked
to say which was numerically the biggest. The problem was that the
physical size of the numerals also varied, so that a big 2 could be shown
with a small 9. This "stroop" experiment creates conflict in the mind.
Because of the time pressure, Vorderman cursed when she was tricked into
saying seven was higher than eight. "I knew that I had pressed the wrong
button, but it was too late," she said. Yet, Ms Tang was impressed by her
The neuroscientists wanted to explore whether Vorderman uses the same
trick to boost her mathematical dexterity as a well known prodigious
calculator, Rüdiger Gamm , who has been shown to use long-term memory to
boost his skills. Dr Lythgoe said that there was anecdotal evidence that
she may do the same, since she normally does an hour of calculations
before each Countdown and this warm-up may help her draw on different
A final experiment was conducted by Dr Chloe Hutton, winner of a Wellcome
Trust biomedical image award. Using a novel processing technique, Dr
Hutton could measure the thickness of Voderman's grey matter, a large
folded sheet mainly consisting of nerve cells surrounding the white matter
that contains the pathways between the cells.
Though still being tested, this method is potentially revolutionary since
it could show how grey matter is being beefed up in regions of the brain
that are in constant use. Her method could also back other studies that
suggest that, though women's brains are, on average, smaller, they may
pack more nerve cells into the prefrontal lobes, which regulate language,
judgment and future actions.
It was hard to know what Vorderman would make of Dr Hutton's final 3D
rendering of her head, shorn of hair, with its top flipped open. Using
smart software, her brain could also be inflated - removing its wrinkles -
to show the full extent of activity that would normally be concealed deep
within the convoluted surface, or cortex.
As the scanner buzzed on and off, reflecting on how the magnetic field was
being tweaked to acquire a series of 1mm-thick brain slices, it
highlighted the density and environment of protons in Voderman's brain,
the tell-tale clue to whether it was looking at white matter or grey.
After two hours, the scanner almost lulled Vorderman to sleep. When she
stirred, she joined us in the control room to spend time moving a cursor
over a computer display, slicing her brain in various ways, checking to
see if there was any difference on the side where she uses her mobile
phone (there wasn't).
"This is fascinating," was her reaction to the first voyage through her
cerebellum. "For the first time, I can literally go in one ear and out the
For an average person, the thin rind of the cortex, the home of
consciousness, is 2 sq ft to 2.5 sq ft. In the case of Vorderman, initial
results suggest her brain surface is 2.1 sq ft.
When I pointed out the huge size of her tongue (actually quite normally
proportioned), I was subject to a quick slap and smart riposte about all
the practice it gets. There was similar banter when Dr Lythgoe, after
inspecting a slice through her face, teased her about having a nose job.
Vorderman was, however, reassured to be told there were no signs of
tumours or strokes. Prof Butterworth marvelled at the size of her
hippocampus , a region involved in memory and navigation. And Dr Hugo
Critchley, a UCL researcher who has had his own brain immortalised as a
plastic model, praised her "healthy brain with no gaps". Like other scans,
the anonymised details of her brain will be passed to a database for
Voderman's scans will also star in a forthcoming lecture series, an
extension of the Visions of Science Photographic Awards, backed by The
Telegraph, Novartis and Nesta. Drummond Paris, CEO of Novartis
Pharmaceuticals UK Ltd, said: "Some of us look at numbers and see
patterns, but for others they make no sense at all. Dr Lythgoe's lecture
will give us a fascinating insight into why this might be, through images,
psychology and neuroscience."
The first talk takes place in the Science Museum, London, at 7pm on Oct 23
and, next year, at the At-Bristol Museum , Bristol, on Jan 29 and Glasgow
Science Centre on March 18. The tickets, £5, can be booked via
Ticketselect. Call 0870 890 5501 or visit www.wayahead.com.
Accompanying the series will be the Visions of Science photographic
exhibition, which begins a nationwide tour at the Science Museum, London,
from Oct 13 until Nov 29.