4 Jul 2021

How quitting maths can affect teens' brains

From Sunday Morning, 11:45 am on 4 July 2021

For some teenagers, dumping maths from their school schedule is something that can't happen quickly enough. However, new research out of the University of Oxford shows that quitting maths at age 16 may have an adverse effect on brain development, while teens who stick with maths at A-level (Year 12) have higher levels of brain chemical. Professor Roi Cohen Kadosh is the senior author of the study.

No caption

Photo: 123RF

He said a lack of maths education negatively affects the adolescent brain and it disadvantages cognitive development.

He said certain chemicals are required for our brains to develop and one of the most essential ones is called gaba.

These chemicals can be quantified using an MRI, he said.

He said the study involved 16-year-old UK adolescents who are able to choose whether to continue studying maths for their final exams when they are 18, or whether they would like to drop the subject.

"We took those who continued to study maths and those who stopped studying maths and we scanned their brains."

Cohen Kadosh said his lab specialises in mathematical cognition and learning and they examined areas that are involved in mathematical learning.

"What we found is that in the critical brain region, at the front of our brain, there is a reduction in this neural chemical. We can actually guess with a very good accuracy whether someone is continuing to study maths or not just based on the concentration of this chemical in their brain."

Adolescents who were compared came from the same environment, same schools and had similar cognitive ability which makes it very likely that whether or not they studied maths was the key factor dictating the level of the chemical gaba in their brains, Cohen Kadosh said.

But he said it is all about probabilities and stopping maths does not mean this will happen for every individual.

Cohen Kadosh has some advice for those teenagers who do drop maths.

"I think it is important that people will try to use the brain in a very flexible way and this is in an abstract way, which is one of the things that maths allows us to do."

Cohen Kadosh acknowledges that some people do not like maths and said it is not psychologically good for someone to make them study something that they hate.

"You can think about things like chess or bridge, we still don't have any evidence that it is a good replacement ... but it allows some level of abstract thinking."

Cohen Kadosh said continuing with maths will not just improve mathematical ability.

"It involves a region in the brain that is critical for logic reasoning, planning, high level cognitive functions, high level thinking and I think this is why we were interested in this region."

Cohen Kadosh said stopping studying other subjects such as chemistry, history or psychology did not lead to any differentiation in the chemical in the area of brain that was studied - but that does not mean quitting other subjects would not change development in other areas of the brain.