Maths ability has been an area of interest for psychologists, sociologists and geneticists for a very long time. In recent years, the hypothesis that mathematical ability is either predetermined genetically or developed through life experiences has been tested with intense scrutiny and research. This article explores the evidence for and against the notion that maths ability is genetically predetermined.
Genes vs Nurture
The debate of ‘Nature vs Nurture’ has ensued in almost every field of science. It is an age-old debate as to whether or not certain behaviours or traits can be explained by genetic factors or environmental influences.
As is the case with most complex topics, it is likely that genetics and environmental factors play a role in the development of mathematical ability of any individual. However, this article shall explore the question, if maths ability is a majorly genetic trait?
Behavioural genetics is a term used to explain the study of how genetics and environmental influences interact to shape behaviour. It is believed that genetics influences many of our physical, emotional and behavioural traits.
Studies have found that genetics may account for as much as 50% of the individual differences in mathematical abilities, with the influence of genes slowly increasing in magnitude with complexity of the task. It is suggested that a major factor for the development of maths ability is the presence of genetic variants known as Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs). These genetic SNPs are related to brain development and cognitive abilities, such as working memory and attention, linking them to mathematical abilities.
Environmental influences are largely acknowledged as having a large role in the development of mathematical ability in individuals. However, what environmental factors prove to be most influential?
Studies have revealed that education and learning play a sizeable role in the formation of maths ability. Multiple studies have identified that quality of education, motivation, attitude towards studying maths, and engaging in maths-based activities significantly improve mathematical ability. Access to books, calculators, computers and other resources also appears to be a major factor in the development of maths ability.
Culture and Environment
The cultural aspects of life, such as the beliefs, values, and expectations of a society, undoubtedly have a profound influence on an individual’s mathematical abilities. The attitude and beliefs of a culture towards mathematics, especially in terms of gender roles and socio-economic classes have been another important aspect of research on this topic. Cultures with strong emphasis on gender roles, for example, tend to restrict girls’ access to maths related education and activities, thereby increasing the relative mathematical abilities more in boys than girls.
Similarly, children from affluent backgrounds tend to have better access to resources and maths related learning experiences than children from poorer backgrounds. The cultural aspects of life that shape mathematical abilities of an individual therefore, cannot and should not be overlooked.
Family studies have also been regularly conducted in order to explore the linkages between genetics and maths ability. Adopting a family and twin design, these studies have identified a genetic influence in the development of mathematical ability by analysing the data of the participants who share similar genetic makeup within a family. Results of these studies suggest that siblings and even identical twins tend to have similar maths abilities despite the environment they may have been raised in.
This suggests that a certain degree of mathematics ability appears to be heritable.
Neuropsychologists have conducted studies to explore the brain structure of individuals with “high math” aptitudes as compared to “low math” aptitude individuals. Results of such studies have revealed that the learning processes of individuals with high maths aptitudes are quite distinct from those of individuals with low maths aptitudes. This can potentially explain why some individuals might grasp mathematical concepts with ease while others may fail to do so despite extensive learning experiences.
To further this line of research, brain scans have been used to compare the brain functionalities of those with high maths aptitude and vice versa. During such scans, individuals were asked to partake in mental maths tasks, with the results suggesting differences in neural connectivity in individuals with high maths abilities as compared to those with low abilities.
For example, scans of individuals with high maths abilities indicated higher activation in the inferior parietal lobe which is responsible for mathematical operations. This can potentially suggest a genetic influence on the mathematics abilities of individuals.
The field of epigenetics studies the changes in gene expression that occur due to the environment or experiences and the mechanisms by which they occur. The results of a recent epigenetic study indicated that certain environmental triggers such as stress, diet or lifestyle can turn certain genes on or off, thus influencing the development of mathematical ability and other skills in an individual.
Genomics is a branch of genetics dealing with the entire set of genetic material of an individual. With the help of various technologies, it is possible to identify certain genetic variants related to anatomical features, neuropsychological functions, and cognitive abilities. Recent research in this field suggest that certain genomic regions that are associated with higher mathematical abilities, however, the link between genetics and maths abilities still remains far from being conclusive.
Current Trends in Research
Theoretically speaking, research suggests that both genetics and environment have a strong influence in the development of mathematics ability. It has also been argued that none of the two factors can be considered to be the sole determinant, as both can synergistically interact to shape an individual’s mathematical abilities.
In modern research, researchers have leaned towards the use of multi-dimensional analyses to identify both the genetic and environmental influences on mathematical abilities more accurately. It is believed that this form of analysis is more likely to uncover the complex relationship that exists between genetics and environmental influences on mathematical abilities.
Despite the extensive research on this subject, the link between mathematics ability and genetics remains far from conclusive. It is evident that a combination of genetics and environmental influences shape mathematical ability in an individual. However, the accurate extent of this combination yet remains unknown.
With the advancements in the field of genetics, it is hoped that in the near future, a clearer understanding of the thought process and mechanism by which mathematics ability is developed in individuals can be attained.