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Naze sugaku ga tokui na hito to nigate na hito ga irunoka?
(Why are some people good, but others bad at maths?)
Mathematical Brain
Brian Butterworth


What Counts:
How Every Brain Is Hardwired for Math
(Free Press, $26)
The Washington Post: Sunday August 29, 1999

In "What Counts: How Every Brain Is Hardwired for Math", cognitive psychologist Brian Butterworth argues that we are born with brain circuits specialized for answering the question "How many?" While all of us possess this Number Module, as he refers to it, Butterworth deftly slips in the question of whether a collection of experimentally confirmed number-crunching chimpanzees, ravens and at least one parrot possess a "predecessor" of our Number Module. Nor do we know if these savant-like animals use the same brain areas to carry out their numerical tasks.

We do know that adults with brain damage can lose the ability to perform numerical operations that would provide little challenge to the average primary grader. As examples Butterworth introduces us to a cast of fascinating patients including: Signora Gaddi, who despite otherwise normal cognition cannot count above the number four; Mr. Bell, whose understanding of speech or written language is almost nonexistent but who nevertheless retains a serviceable ability in arithmetic; Mr. Morris, who after hearing a series of numbers cannot repeat back more than two of them yet can carry out accurate mental calculations involving two three-digit numbers. On the basis of these examples Butterworth concludes that "arithmetical facts and arithmetical procedures occupy different circuits in the brain." Even more intriguing, "writing words and writing numerals,reading words and reading numbers all involve distinct brain circuits, despite having common input pathways from the eyes and common output pathways to the hands."

Given this emphasis on the brain as an explanation for mathematical abilities, Butterworth's conclusion that "anybody can be a math prodigy" comes as asurprise. To support this contention, he refers to a famous study by the French psychologist Alfred Binet showing that experienced cashiers at the Bon Marche department store in Paris could calculate more rapidly than two math prodigies competing against them. Butterworth favors the explanation that "in those days a cashier was recognized as highly skilled" rather than the more reasonable one that "self-selection played a part: those who couldn't do [math] or didn't enjoy doing it moved on to other positions within the store." At another point, using the English shorthand for "mathematics," he concedes what we mathophobics have always known: "Having good natural abilities for maths may be exactly the reason for choosing maths in the first place."

Richard Restak
© Washington Post,1999.


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