The mathematical nightmare- fractions - are not major stumbling blocks in math education as once thought. Research has found that apparently, the adult brain can 'intuitively' encode them without conscious thought.
The study, conducted by researchers Simon Jacob, MD, and Andreas Nieder, PhD, at the University of Tübingen in Germany, has shown that cells in the intraparietal sulcus (IPS) and the prefrontal cortex - brain regions important for processing whole numbers - are tuned to respond to particular fractions.
The findings suggest that adults have an intuitive understanding of fractions and may aid in the development of new teaching techniques.
"This new study challenges the notion that children must undergo a qualitative shift in order to understand fractions and use them in calculations. The findings instead suggest that fractions are built upon the system that is employed to represent basic numerical magnitude in the brain," Daniel Ansari, PhD, at the University of Western Ontario in Canada, an expert on numerical cognition in children and adults who was not affiliated with the study.
For the study, the research team scanned the brains of adult participants as they watched fractions flashed on a screen.
The researchers used a technique called functional MRI adaptation (fMRA) to identify brain regions that adapt - or show decreased activity - to the same stimulus presented over and over again.
When the researchers rapidly and repeatedly presented study participants with fractions that equaled approximately 1/6, they found decreased activation in the IPS and prefrontal cortex.
Then, the researchers showed the participants fractions that deviated from 1/6. The more the fraction differed from 1/6, the greater the activity in IPS cells.
The rapid presentation of each fraction and small variations in fraction value ensured that study participants directly processed the fractions, rather than calculating their values.
These findings suggest that fractions automatically activate the IPS and prefrontal cortex in adults.
The researchers found that distinct groups of cells in these brain regions responded to different fraction values. Moreover, the cells responded the same way, whether fractions were presented as either numbers (1/4) or words (one-fourth).
"These experiments change the way we should think about fractions. We have shown that our highly-trained brains represent fractions intuitively, a result that could influence the teaching of arithmetic and mathematics in schools," said study author Jacob.
The research has been published in the April 8 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience.