Everyone can be good at Mathematics

by Marshall Cavendish Education | Jun 05, 2017
“I’m not a Maths person”
“I have never been good at Maths”

We’ve often heard such passing remarks from people who struggle to understand mathematical concepts. This leads us to categorise the world into 2 types of people – the “language” people and the “maths” people. It’s a long-held belief that people are either right-brained or left-brained. Language people are often classified as right brainers (creative, imaginative and artistic), while Maths people are left brainers (logical, analytical and detail-oriented). Such a stereotype is common, but science tells us that this stereotype is all but a myth. Science also tells us that a person who is good at languages can be equally good at mathematics.

Left-brain, right-brain theory

The brain is divided into 2 hemispheres, right and left. Each hemisphere is capable of performing several roles. Although the functions of the hemispheres are distinct, the 2 sides of the brain work simultaneously to process information.



Functions & Characteristics Linear processing
  • Part to whole; details –> big picture
Sequential and logical processing
  • Uses orders and patterns to solve problems
Symbolic processing
  • Makes meaning from alphabet and mathematical notations
Verbal processing
  • Express themselves well with words
  • Reasoning
Holistic processing
  • Whole to part; big picture –> details

Random and intuitive processing

  • Uses visualisation and imagination to solve problems
Concrete processing
  • Makes meaning with sensory experiences, e.g.: spatial awareness
Non-verbal processing
  • Express themselves better with visuals or gestures

As we can see, distinct mathematical and linguistics capabilities reside in the left hemisphere, which explains why a person who is good at languages can be equally good at mathematics.

Why do some people find mathematics challenging?

Before we delve into this topic, let’s understand what mathematics really is all about. Mathematics is more than just the study of numbers. The study of mathematics encompasses “the systematic treatment of magnitude, relationships between figures and forms, and relations between quantities expressed symbolically”. Mathematics is a multi-faceted subject and it definitely requires more than just the left side of the brain to process mathematical information. A study in 2012, led by Dr. Joonkoon Park in Dallas, showed that when one is faced with a mathematical problem, the communication between the left and right hemispheres increases significantly. The stronger the connection, the faster an individual becomes at solving mathematical problems. In that study, Dr Park examined the brain activity of 27 adults as they carried out the 2 tasks assigned:

  • Numerical
  • Arithmetic

In the first task, participants were asked to judge whether two groups of shapes contained the same or different number of items. In this activity, the functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) showed that the right side of the brain was activated. In the second task, participants were asked to solve simple addition and subtraction problems. This time, the fMRI revealed activities from both sides of the brain. What does this tell us? Besides logical, systematic and analytical skills (functions from the left hemisphere), one also needs visualisation and concrete processing skills (functions from the right hemisphere) to excel in mathematics.  While all of us can be good at both language and mathematics, we are either left or right brain dominant. Hence, the lack of one or more of these skills (due to being left or right brain dominant) makes mathematics challenging for some people.

How can we improve thinking on both sides of the brain?

We may be left or right brain dominant, but that does not mean mathematics will be our nemesis for life. The good news is, our brain can be trained! Below are some activities that can help us strengthen our brain functions. When we train our brain, the weaker skills in us are sharpened and enhanced.

  • Learn music
  • Read
  • Storytelling
  • Puzzle activities, e.g.: Sudoku, crossword puzzle, word search, etc…
  • Tangram
  • Doing things with your least dominant hand
  • Play electronic games
  • Exercise


http://www.fastcompany.com/3023394/leadership-now/why-the-right-brain-right-brain-myth-is-so-wrong http://johnhawks.net/weblog/reviews/brain/function/math_localization_language_2006.htmlhttps://www.utdallas.edu/news/2012/8/30-19381_Study-Links-Math-Abilities-to-Left-Right-Brain-Com_article-wide.html 

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