QED: Lopsided brains could make girls worse at maths
by Roger Highfield
The Sunday Telegraph: 18th April, 2004.
Have women got a head for maths? Apparently not. The highest ranks of
mathematicians throng with male minds that are more comfortable with its
abstract concepts of space, geometry and number.
Norway recently established the Abel Prize as the mathematical equivalent
of Sweden's Nobel Prize. So far, there have been three winners, including
Britain's Sir Michael Atiyah, who received the good news last month. All
are men. No woman has ever won the Fields Medal either, a prestigious gong
handed to mathematical prodigies aged under 40.
While women are often faster at calculation, men excel at mathematical
reasoning and problem solving. Around the world people are trying to
discover why, in research that ventures into territory which is beset by
self-deception, prejudice and political correctness.
Studies of thousands of children by Prof Camilla Benbow of Vanderbilt
university, Nashville, suggest that biology does shape mathematical
destiny: while there is little difference overall, girls' scores are
bunched around middle ability, while boys have a greater spread. Perhaps
this difference is all in the mind. In recent years, various studies have
concluded that sex differences are more than skin deep: the brains of men
and women handle language and emotion in different ways, with differences
in brain structure. This, in turn, may reflect our evolutionary past, and
how men's brains were optimised to hunt and women's to gather.
Some speculate that exposure to the male sex hormone testosterone in the
womb could sharpen mathematical skills by its selective action on the
right half of the brain, enhancing the development of the right
hemisphere's mental imagery skills, which come in handy for mathematical
This dovetails with the findings of a study published a few days ago in
the journal Neuropsychology by a team led by Professor Michael O'Boyle of
the University of Melbourne, Australia. With colleagues in the US Army at
Fort Benning, Georgia, they studied 60 right-handed young males, of whom
18 were mathematically gifted.
They found that the two halves of the brain co-operate better in the
latter. Prof O'Boyle thinks that this is a signature of exceptional
people. "Giftedness in maths, music or art may be the by-product of a
brain that has functionally organised itself in a qualitatively different
way than the usual left/right hemispheric asymmetry," he said. Such a
brain, he believes, is marked by balanced and highly integrated
contributions from both halves.
Although this did not address female ability directly, it hints that women
are worse at maths because they tend to have lopsided brain organisation.
Not everyone is convinced. Prof Brian Butterworth of the Institute of
Cognitive Neuroscience in London points out that other work shows girls'
brains are more symmetrical than boys'.
He believes that cultural pressures and variations in the quality of maths
teaching are more likely to be responsible for "one of the most enduring
maths myths" - that women are inferior. Decades ago, girls tended to be
taught by non-specialist teachers, unlike boys. As a consequence of their
better teaching, the boys did better but today - at least in GCSE
mathematics - girls are on top, said Prof Butterworth.
Prof Benbow herself underlines the importance of cultural factors by
pointing out that in China, where girls get more encouragement in
mathematics, the number of gifted boys exceeds that of gifted girls by
four to one, compared to 13 to one in America. There is evidence that
girls have yet to reach their full mathematical potential. Prof
Butterworth recently conducted the world's largest mathematics experiment
on 18,000 people who passed through the Explore-at-Bristol science centre.
Women were quicker at carrying out a primitive, "instant judgment" type of
maths, resting on a very basic numerical skill - estimating the numbers of
dots up to three. Other insights may come from studies of top female
mathematicians. There have been many, such as Theano, the 5th-century BC
wife of Pythagoras, Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), who wrote the first computer
program, and Mary Somerville (1780-1872), who gave her name to Somerville
There is also, of course, Carol Vorderman, whose brain was recently
scanned by Prof Butterworth's team. After rummaging through the neurons of
one of the few TV stars more famous for her brains than her pretty face,
he marvelled at the size of her hippocampus, a region involved in memory
and navigation. But his colleagues are still analysing the data. Science
will have to wait a little longer to find out if her brain can help reveal
whether male mathematical superiority is real.