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Brain Scan Forecasting of Future Math Competence

I recently published a free online book, Brain Science for Educators and Parents (Moursund, August, 2015). Chapter 10 in this book focuses on brain science applications to math education, while chapter 8 focuses on a variety of currently available types of brain scans used both in research and diagnosis.

Today I encountered an article on the use of MRI and fMRI to try to forecast how well a child will do in math education (Fox, 8/19/2015). The article reports on Stanford University researchers who used a combination of MRI and fMRI to provide a picture of various regions of the brain and their activity as the brain works on a variety of tasks. Quoting from the first part of the article:

Brain scans may be able to predict which kids are likely to improve their math skills in school and which ones are not, and they do it better than IQ or math tests, researchers reported Tuesday.

The researchers have been working with a group of kids who started getting brain scans at the age of 8, and who have followed up with tests into their mid-teens.

To their surprise, the researchers found that certain patterns of brain activity when the kids were not doing anything at all at age 8 predicted how much they would improve their math skills over the years. And these scans did so with far more accuracy than did intelligence tests, reading tests, or math tests, they report in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Notice that this is a correlational study. Certain types of brain activity in students of age eight correlated well with their math performance in their mid-teens. Remember that correlation is not necessarily causation. Quoting from the article:

The [8-year-old] students weren't thinking about or doing anything in particular. But the research team was able to pinpoint areas of the brain that were more active in the kids who improved their math skills over the next few years.

"Some of the kids started out really bad [at math] and ended up really good," Tanya Evans, [a psychiatric researcher who worked on the study] said. "Some stayed average. Some started out good and got worse."

Evans doesn't think this means that math skills are necessarily hard-wired into the brain. She wants to work on ways to improve math skills and to see if the brain structures also change.

Many brain scan studies have been done on children with various brain disorders such as dyscalculia (a math disorder) and dyslexia (a reading disorder). Such research has identified specific areas of the brain that are not functioning in the same manner as in the brains of children who do not have these disorders and learning problems. Interventions have been developed that “rewire” the brain and contribute to improved performance of students. Quoting again from the article by Maggie Fox:

"A long-term goal of this research is to identify children who might benefit most from targeted math intervention at an early age," said Vinod Menon, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences who led the research.

In summary, the various types of brain scan hardware and software are steadily improving. Educational research using such facilities is paying off.

Our brains have considerable plasticity. As we identify certain brain areas that are not working well, we can then conduct research on ways to improve the functioning of these areas. We have made considerable progress in identifying students with dyslexia, and helping them to become adequate or even good readers. The Stanford researchers and others believe we will eventually have similar success in math education.

What You Can Do

If you are an educator and/or a parent, think about your knowledge of the human brain. Is it adequate to the task of helping your students/children learn about the capabilities and limitations of their own brains? Do you understand and apply ways in which physical and mental activity (including physical exercise and both informal and formal education) can help to improve one’s brain? If you are weak in this area, I highly recommend my free book mentioned in the first paragraph (Moursund, August, 2015).

      References and Resources

      Moursund, D. (8/19/2015). Brain scans may predict math gains in children, study finds. NBC News. Retrieved 8/19/2015 from

      Moursund, D. (4/19/2015). Preparing students for their futures. IAE Blog. Retrieved 8/19/2015 from

      Moursund, D. (2015). Critical thinking. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 8/19/2015 from

      Moursund, D. (August, 2015). Brain science for educators and parents. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Access a website version of the book at Download a Microsoft Word version of the book from Download a PDF of the book from

      Moursund, D. (2014). Empowering learners and teachers. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 8/19/2015 from

      Moursund, D. (2013). Folk math. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 8/19/2015 from

A Dialogue on Brain Science in Education
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Monday, 18 January 2021

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