June 29, 2006
Parts Of Brain Used For Math Differ For English, Chinese Speakers

Chinese and English speakers both use the inferior parietal cortex when doing math. But Chinese and English speakers use different additional brain regions for calculating.

“But native English speakers rely more on additional brain regions involved in the meaning of words, whereas native Chinese speakers rely more on additional brain regions involved in the visual appearance and physical manipulation of numbers,” says Eric Reiman of the Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona, US, one of the team.

Specifically, Chinese speakers had more activity in the visual and spatial brain centre called the visuo-premotor association network. Native English speakers showed more activity in the language network known as perisylvian cortices in the left half of the brain.

Reiman and his colleagues suggest that the Chinese language’s simple way of describing numbers may make native speakers less reliant on language processing when doing maths. For example, “eleven” is “ten one” in Chinese “twenty-one” is “two ten one”.

Note that the native Engilsih speakers used in the study probably were not ethnic Chinese. So this study does not control for genetic factors. I'd like to see this study repeated in an English speaking country with Chinese ethnics who were raised to speak English from birth. Also, a comparison with other groups and with more languages would provide more controls.

If people use different parts of the brain to perform the same problems they probably think differently about the world.

The difference "may mean that Chinese speakers perform problems in a different manner than do English speakers," said lead author Yiyuan Tang of Dalian University of Technology in Dalian, China.

"In part that might represent the difference in language. It could be that the difference in language encourages different styles of computation and this may be enhanced by different methods of learning to deal with numbers," Tang said in an interview via e-mail.

More use of some part of the brain to do computations might reduce the availability of that part of the brain for other uses. That, in turn, probably changes how the mind models the world.

This report is consistent with previous research which found differences in which parts of the mind process language. See Mandarin Language Uses More Of The Brain Than English.

I'd also like to brain scan comparisons done of people with different occupations (e.g. physicists, mathematicians, truck drivers, lawyers, reporters) for how they do mathematics. Do they differ between occupations as much as English and Chinese speakers differ?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2006 June 29 09:18 PM  Brain Performance

Mike Lorrey said at June 30, 2006 3:40 PM:

Does this mean that Mandarin is less efficient than English? Does this make a quantitative judgement about the technological accomplishment of each culture?

bdb said at June 30, 2006 4:45 PM:

Of course Chinese speakers view the world differently.

The name for china in chinese (mandarin) is zhong-guo which means middle-kingdom; which means center of the earth/universe!

gmoke said at June 30, 2006 6:19 PM:

Chinese characters are qualitatively different than an alphabet. They are abstract pictographs made up of separate strokes of a brush. A set of strokes is a radical and different radicals and strokes combine to make all the characters. In Chinese you can do visual puns or rhymes on the characters and radicals as Wang Wei, the Tang dynasty poet, did. Chinese characters have been further abstracted into syllabaries as in Japanese and adapted by other cultures, Korean, Indo-Chinese...

Chinese characters engage the eye and the brain in other ways than an alphabet does.

Chinese has tone too, four different tones in Mandarin. Chinese engages the ear differently than English.

It also has another taste in the mouth and feel in the muscles.

The abacus is a traditional Chinese calculator and I would venture to say that there is a cultural connection between the manipulation of the beads and mathematics.

CASpears said at June 30, 2006 6:53 PM:

Mike Lorrey:

Wow...I think you are jumping the gun with ethnocentrism...

Mandarin is probably more efficient in the spoken form, but less so in the written. Its typical construction is s-v-o, however, mandarin has no effective future sense, no case change, no real past tense (but for the particle "le" at the end of the sentence and using constructs such as "wo zuotien qu shangdian le" (I yesterday go store). Mandarin also has no real plural, everything is counted with counting words, such as we have in English but they have far more (such as 2 flocks of geese, a heard of deer, etc)....in Mandarin an example would be "Wo kanguo san suen quaizi" ( I saw three chopstix, "suen" being the group word (I'm not 100% sure on the group word for chopsticks, been awhile) This language in the spoken form has few exceptions, is very streamline, and despite this Chinese people have been able to develop very complex abstract ideas in science and literature.

I once read that the older a language is and the more unified the country is culturally, the less grammar the language has...English not being an old language and is a hog-pog of two distinct languages, Latin (through the old Norman French) and German (through a distinct dialect that is closer to present day Dutch than High German and Old Norse)...the language is not efficient in grammar or spelling due to this.

I find Mandarin much easier to speak, than other languages I studied (such as Russian, French, and Spanish) due to the simple grammar constructions. Writing Chinese I found very hard, is is extremely detail oriented and memory intensive...the reason they still use characters is due to the fact that the writing system was the langu-franca of China proper for centuries. Until the Communists unified Modern China only the highly educated could speak the language of the "court" and this langauge varied depending on where the court was located. It was not always in Beijing. Due to China's age and the fact that most people did not move around, regional dialects became so diversified that the difference between Shanghai Dialect, Cantonese, and Mandarin became greater than the difference between Portugese, Italian, and Spanish. If they had went to an alphabet, it would have been chaos, because everyone would have spelled words differently. The characters have no sound associated with them, therefore it does not matter how you say the character the meaning is the same.

I can give a good example of this.

Although Japanese (but for many loan words) is not grammatically similar to Chinese at all, the characters for the words sky and country are exactly the same as in Mandarin, however in Mandarin the characters are pronounced "tien" and guo, whereas in Japanese they are "Ten" and "koku" respectively. China in Mandarin is Zhongguo, in Japanese it is Chugoku, but written exactly the same in Chinese characters.

These characters unified China and made it possible to communicate between regions despite the dialect or language...even Vietnamese (who were part of China for over 1,000 years but have a strikingly different language) and Koreans once wrote in Chinese characer completely...so did the Japanese (however Japanese today only use 2,000 characters in unison with their two alphabet sytems).

Simo said at July 2, 2006 11:27 AM:

In order to write Chinese you must memorize thousands of fairly complex characters. If all exercise charactes would be written on A4s, the pile would be quite thick no matter how densely the characters are written. There is every reason to believe that this memorization exercise trains Chinese visual skills.

What comes to genetic selection, the Chinese have used written exams to fill government positions for thousands of years. Assuming that success in government increases reproductive success, this may have selected for genes that make it easier to first memorize huge amounts of characters and then to read quickly with those characters.

In general, it doesn't seem like brain is a fixed-volume container where training in one skill pushes out other skills. For example, many Finns use a lot of effort to study several languages (up to 1/3 of the curriculum), and still they do quite well in maths and natural sciences. One argument against mandatory Swedish education in Finland is that the time spent with Swedish decreases the time that is available for the skills needed in the industry, and thus mandatory Swedish decreses Finland's ability to compete globally. This argument is quite fragile as the European PISA comparisons also put Finland to good rankings in math and natural sciences. If the Chinese use 1/3 of the curriculum to study Chinese characters, why would it be away from something else after the initial time investment is done?

Secondly I want to point out one difference that may make it more complex to compare native Chinese and native English speakers. At least in Finland, some people learn to read in semi-spontaneous manner before school, by demonstrating natural interest in characters and getting some advice from their parents. I wonder if this is possible in Chinese, or whether reading Chinese requires conscious and determined effort, delaying the point where it is possible to read texts.

Why does it matter? People who learn to read well at young age get more exposure to larger amounts of written text. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that training a skill at young age produces better and somethimes qualitatively different results ( (1) Most top performers in sports and music have started practising at very young age. (2) Many older immigrants have trouble with foreign languages, despite huge economic incentives to learn and knowledge that it is definitely possible to acquire a language at mature age. (3) Many old people are quite computer-illiterate in a way that young people seldom are. (4) When reading newspaper reports about IT companies, it seems that many of them are founded by people who didn't learn programming in Uni.)
This may complicate comparisons with native Chinese speakers and native English speakers with approximately similar genes and culture.

David D said at July 8, 2006 10:16 PM:

Easy Folks,

I think that I was a dummy prior to smoking dope and I was a dummy after I stopped. The difference, however, [was] that I was a much happier idiot when I was smoking. I gave it up for legal reasons after passing the CPA exam and embarking on a new life journey. The good citizen and productive member of the, money making, Bourbon and Scotch drinking crowd, although I have avoided stealing pensions and selling high-risk indentures to people over 70 years old.

Sorry for drifting, I have ADD - OCD and am Bi-polar, at least some people have claimed (The Bi-polar, and OCD is "iffy"). I stopped drinking and smoking weed 15 years ago. I must say that my Poetry and songwriting did suffer when I quit smoking pot. My memory remains good, but my intelligence is (slow) although my IQ is a little above the norm.

Let me make this simple - daily life destroys the functionality of the brain. Moderation helps, as well as, avoiding glue, extensive carbon monoxide, cigarettes, and TOO MUCH POT. Pick your poisons carefully. Did I mention that TOO MUCH POT would destroy brain cells (there goes that recall thing again)? By the way, avoid the NJ Turnpike while driving. Remember this "Don't smoke TOO MUCH POT". Morphine may help if the depression overwhelms you and it has very few side effects other than you feel a little like Nero when Rome was burning. "It’s OK - just a little brush fire" - "Nice riff, don't you think?”

Can all the bright responsive people help me with my review course in the Philosophy of Ethics? I am having a little trouble with the social aspects of discriminating based on intelligence and the need for egomaniacal arrogance in public discourse.


David D.

clark said at August 17, 2007 3:34 PM:


This article describes me. When I read I understand things by visually seeing them. But unfortunely, not all things in this world you can see/visualize as an object, expecially when it comes to big words. I had always have trouble reading, I really wish i could improve the part of the brain that this article talk about, where like the americans uses additional brain region to understand words. My question is:
Do anybody know how I can exercise that area of the brain so that I can better myself in english. Would really appreciate it.

Please email me if you know: calel6112@gmail.com

Barbara said at August 27, 2010 7:58 AM:

Very interesting discussion. I stumbled on this ( as I usually do through life) after googling " How the brain learns math". The education system in America is desperatley trying to find a way to bring up math and reading scores ( Now, don't go bashing teachers here pleeeeeeeze). I have never heard or thought about the differenent language learners and how they hardwire their brains to learn mathematical concepts and computations.But, it makes sense. Men and women use different parts of the brain to perform similar tasks, and some researchers have indicated that unsuccessful readers use the left hemisphere instead of the right as successful readers do.( I know this is a too simplified explanation)... but language itself... the culture and development through the formative years????? opens up a whole new landscape...Thank you

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