Exploring Cognitive Literacy, with Math?

There is an old saying that if you’re good at language, you should be good at math.  After all, isn’t math (especially algebra) a language of its own?  This doesn’t always hold true for those of us who excel in language arts yet struggle with mathematics, but all is not lost:  new research has found that the areas of the brain geared for reading are also engaged during math.

Researchers were initially studying dyslexia at the University of Buffalo when they noticed that the brain was using the same functional networks for reading as it was for math. When you’re reading, you’re using the visual cortex and your auditory cortex within the brain.  This switches throughout the day when different tasks are required, so if you’re then using your hand to pick something up, the visual cortex begins to work with your pre-motor cortex.

Each task requires different signals to be sent to different areas of the brain to work together in what is described as a functional network.  This was highlighted when the researchers were studying dyslexia through MRI scans between two groups of readers in either a good reading group or a poor reading group.  They could predict dyslexia at a 94% accuracy by studying these brain scans while the participants were doing a language task.

The real surprise came when the readers were asked to do mental multiplication tasks on a whim to try to see if the results could be generalized.  Though it wasn’t a real focus of the study, the results paved the way for the groundbreaking discovery that even though math should have been using a different functional network, it was activating the same network used for reading!

How the brain approaches math will be shaped by how good you are at reading, based on these results.  Could your math skills be strengthened by more reading, or vice versa?  As more information is uncovered, it’s a great reminder to make sure that literacy is paramount in education and continues to be emphasized even during later life to keep cognition sharp!


Chris McNorgan. The Connectivity Fingerprints of Highly-Skilled and Disordered Reading Persist Across Cognitive Domains. Frontiers in Computational Neuroscience, 2021; 15 DOI: 10.3389/fncom.2021.590093

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