Brain Function Study Suggests Boys and Girls Have Equal Aptitude for Mathematics

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A child playing a math game. [Carnegie Mellon University]

There is a widespread, not always tacit assumption that a biological gender divide in aptitude for mathematics may underpin why women don’t prosper as well as their male counterparts in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. A comprehensive examination of neural development in boys and girls has now effectively refuted this myth, and demonstrated that neural functioning is similar in both sexes. Findings from the study indicate that, at a neurological level, there should be no reason why girls would have less aptitude for maths than boys.

“Science doesn’t align with folk beliefs,” said Jessica Cantlon, PhD, the Ronald J. and Mary Ann Zdrojkowski professor of developmental neuroscience at Carnegie Mellon University’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, who is senior author of the researchers’ published paper in npj Science of Learning. “We see that children’s brains function similarly regardless of their gender so hopefully we can recalibrate expectations of what children can achieve in mathematics.” Cantlon, together with Alyssa Kersey, PhD, postdoctoral scholar at the department of psychology, University of Chicago and first author on the paper, and Kelsey Csumitta, PhD, National Science Foundation graduate research fellow at Drexel University, reported on their findings in a paper titled, “Gender similarities in the brain during mathematics development.”

In 1992, the new Teen Talk Barbie controversially uttered the words, “Math class is hard.” The toy’s release may have met with public backlash, but some scientists have hypothesized that women and men differ in their pursuit of careers in STEM fields because of “biological differences in mathematics aptitude,” the authors wrote. However, they pointed out, “little evidence supports such claims.” While some studies in children and in adults have indicated gender differences in math performance, it is not been possible to “disentangle” what might be biological differences from sociocultural influences. In fact, the authors continued, “… behavioral studies often find no gender differences in mathematical cognition in early childhood … and there are no prior functional neuroimaging studies of biological gender differences in mathematical cognition during early childhood.”

To address the lack of neurological evidence, Cantlon and her team conducted the first neuroimaging study to evaluate biological gender differences in math aptitude in young children. “Although evidence for behavioral gender differences in mathematics is weak in older children, adolescents, and adults, it is important to consider when and how any differences might emerge,” they acknowledged. “One possibility is that despite established gender similarities on behavioral tasks in early childhood, the underlying biological or neural processes could differ between boys and girls … Alternatively, boys and girls may show significant, widespread biological similarities in the neural processes of mathematics during early childhood. This outcome would be consistent with yet untested claims that boys and girls share a core biology for mathematical cognition.”

Cantlon’s team used functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to measure brain activity in 104 young children (including 55 girls), aged 3–10 years. Neural activity was measured while the children watched an educational video covering early maths topics, such as counting and addition. The researchers compared scans from the boys and girls to evaluate brain similarity. They also examined brain maturity by comparing the children’s scans to those taken from a group of 63 adults (including 25 women) who watched the same math videos. “Neural maturity was calculated by conducting intersubject correlations of the neural timecourses across the entire video between children and adults,” the researchers explained. “Thus, it assesses the degree to which children’s neural activity resembled that of adults who watched the same video and allows the data to be combined across studies in a meaningful way.”

Interestingly, a raft of statistical comparisons suggested that there were no differences in the brain development of girls and boys. “Across multiple neural analyses, we show that girls’ and boys’ brains function similarly during mathematical processing.” The researchers found no difference in how boys and girls processed math skills. Both sexes were equally engaged while watching the educational videos. The analyses, in addition, indicated that the brain maturity of boys and girls brains was statistically equivalent when compared with either men or women in the adult group.

The researchers also compared the results of the Test of Early Mathematics Ability, a standardized test for 3–8-year-old children, from 97 participants (including 50 girls) to gauge the rate of math development. Again, they found that math ability was equivalent among the children and showed no difference in gender or with age.

 

Carnegie Mellon University neuroscientist Jessica Cantlon, PhD, explains a math game to a participant. [Carnegie Mellon University]
“We saw no evidence of gender differences in neural responses to mathematics content, neural responses during educational video viewing, or rates of neural development for mathematical processing in early childhood, and in fact we found statistical equivalence between boys and girls throughout the brain,” the authors concluded. “ … boys’ and girls’ math abilities related to the rate of neural mathematics development in the same brain regions, and neural similarity was consistent across children of the same and of different genders … Our results are consistent with the ‘Gender Similarities Hypothesis’, which argues that boys and girls function similarly in most areas of cognition.”

“It’s not just that boys and girls are using the math network in the same ways but that similarities were evident across the entire brain,” said Kersey. “This is an important reminder that humans are more similar to each other than we are different.” The reported study builds on the team’s previous studies that found equivalent behavioral performance on a range of mathematics tests between young boys and girls.

Cantlon said she thinks society and culture are likely steering girls and young women away from STEM fields. Previous studies have shown that families spend more time with young boys in play that involves spatial cognition. “Similarly, in math and science, teachers tend to show differential distributions of time spent encouraging students, praising students, and explaining concepts to students, with boys receiving more time than girls. This is important because teachers’ perceptions of children’s math ability predict later math achievement scores.” In addition, children often pick up on cues from their parent’s expectations for math abilities.

“A strong sociocultural influence on early childhood math achievement makes it difficult to tease apart intrinsic gender differences from sociocultural factors in older children and adults,” the authors concluded. “Typical socialization can exacerbate small differences between boys and girls that can snowball into how we treat them in science and math,” Cantlon said. “We need to be cognizant of these origins to ensure we aren’t the ones causing the gender inequities.” The reported study was focused on early childhood development using a limited set of math tasks. Cantlon wants to continue this work using a broader array of math skills, such as spatial processing and memory, and to follow the children over many years.

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