Brain Math: Monkeys Do Arithmetic Like Us

It’s increasingly harder to deny computers are more logical (at least deductively) than human brains, and math is long considered the epitome of logical reasoning. Having built computers, we understand fairly well how is it they do math. Turns out, human brains aren’t so much different.

Recent work in photographing human brain activity, looking at monkey heads, and poking around with babies has told us that arithmetic has a tangible cerebral substrate.

The human intraparietal sulcus is systematically activated in all number tasks and could host a central amodal representation of quantity. Areas of the precentral and inferior prefrontal cortex also activate when subjects engage in mental calculation.

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Moreover, French scientists identified the analogous parts of monkey brains involved in processing arithmetic. Using neuroimaging clearly reveals consistently activated sets of parietal, prefrontal, and cingulate areas whenever subjects are asked to do math.

A recent meta-analysis indicates that the horizontal segment of the bilateral intraparietal sulcus (HIPS), in particular, is implicated in most neuroimaging studies of number processing, with a reproducibility of 5–7 mm in standardized coordinates. The precentral sulcus and inferior frontal gyrus are also frequently co-activated.

 Research suggests that dolphins, salamanders, macaques, tamarin monkeys, and lions also think about numbers similarly. Several studies also postulate that arithmetic reasoning can be acquired by training, yet the same areas of the brain are “trained.”

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