Our mother tongue might shape the brain networks involved in processing numbers and arithmetic, according to a fMRI study conducted by Chinese and US researchers. Twenty-four volunteers, 12 native Chinese speakers and 12 native English matched for age, gender and education level, were examined by comparing brain activation patterns (BAPs), while viewing Arabic digits and performing arithmetic tasks (Tang Y., et al. Arithmetic processing in the brain shaped by cultures. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 28, 10775-10780, 2006).

Functional brain imaging showed remarkable differences in the BAPs, especially in the left hemisphere, between the two groups when they were viewing digits.

Native English speakers showed a greater activation in the left hemisphere, particularly in the left supplementary motor area, Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas. A much stronger brain activation was found in the premotor association area, a region associated with various cognitive functions and visuospatial processing. Differences in BAPs between Chinese and English speakers were more pronounced during an additional task and a quantity comparison task. In general, as the mathematical loading increased, premotor area increased its activation in Chinese but not in English speakers. A similar trend was observed in English speakers but not in Chinese speakers, for perisylvian areas, which are crucial for word processing.

These findings seem to support a role for language in shaping neural networks involved in number and arithmetic processing, but genetic disposition and different teaching methods could also play a role.


BM&L-September 2006