Solving For X, Among the Neurons

Huffington Post:

I have a fence that needs scraping and painting, and I’m pretty sure I can do the whole job in six hours. My friend Jack, who is an experienced painter, wants me to hire him. He promises he can have a new coat of paint on the fence in four hours. I’m tempted, but I’m wondering, what if Jack and I work together? If he does the trim and other detail work, and I do the easy brushing, we should be able to wrap this job up by lunchtime, easy.

But how long will it take, exactly? This is what, in algebra, we call a “word problem.” I always loved word problems when I was in school, because unlike a lot of math, they seemed connected to natural situations that actually occur in real life. Fences do need painting, and fence owners may indeed want to make everyday calculations like this one.

Such problems are also appealing because they are expressed in natural language, with familiar linguistic syntax, rather than abstract symbols. In fact, one influential psychological theory holds that everyday language and algebra share a common cognitive foundation — and may actually be processed in the same part of the brain.

But is this true? Is algebra really like the language we read and speak and hear all the time, or is it — despite its familiarity and accessibility — more like calculus and trig? Psychological scientist Martin Monti of UCLA decided to explore this question in a study using brain scanners. He wanted to see what parts of the brain are active during both linguistic and algebraic problem solving — and if it is the same part, as the dominant theory argues.

Read the whole story: Huffington Post

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