Girls are just as good at math as boys, finds brain imaging study

Girls are just as good at mat has boys, according to science published Friday morning. 

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University used MRI images to monitor the brain activity of children while they learned early mathematical concepts. 

The boys’ and girls’ brains worked and processed the information in the same way, the study authors report. 

‘Science doesn’t align with folk belief’ said Dr Jessica Cantlon, who led the research. 

‘We see that children’s brains function similarly regardless of their gender so hopefully we can recalibrate expectations of what children can achieve in mathematics.’   

Despite historical stereotypes about girls' math abilities, a new study used brain imaging to show there's no difference between how their brains and boys' process counting and addition

Despite historical stereotypes about girls’ math abilities, a new study used brain imaging to show there’s no difference between how their brains and boys’ process counting and addition

From very young ages, little girls – in the US and around most of the world – confront many negative stereotypes: that they’re not as good at math, that they’re not as strong, fast or physically capable, and more.  

Gender disparities continue through their lives, as seen in wage gaps, gaps in the positions and opportunities available to boys versus boys (differences that are now even more complicate as we discover a full spectrum of genders and sexualities). 

There are now more women earning college degrees in the US than men overall but, across all STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, the proportion of women earning Bachelor’s Master’s and PhD degrees hovers around a third. 

STEM gender gaps have narrowed somewhat in the last couple of decades but, since 2003, they’ve widened once more.  

Anecdotal observations have continued to fuel that math myth, but science has been poking holes in the prejudice.  

First scientists started seeing that there might be differences, but it was more accurate to say that while boys excelled at some types of math, girls were better designed to do others, or that boys might test better, but aptitudes were not significantly different. 

A 2007 unlocked an obvious but pernicious explanation for boys’ and girls’ differing performances in math. 

The University of Chicago researchers found that girls struggled more with math – when they were told that boys were better at the subject. 

‘Typical socialization can exacerbate small differences between boys and girls that can snowball into how we treat them in science and math,’ said Dr Cantlon. 

By monitoring the brain function of boys and girls doing math, her study aimed to peel back the layer of socialization that colors both our and young girls’ perceptions of their mathematical ability. 

Dr Cantlon and her colleagues monitored the brains of 104 young girls and boys, between the ages of three and 10 for the new study, published in npj Science of Learning. 

Their brain activity was captured by a functional MRI machine while the children were watching a video that taught basic math concepts like counting and addition. 

The compared the boys’ and girls’ brain scans to one another, as well as to a matching set of scans of the brains of 63 adults who watched the same videos while in the fMRI scanner. 

According to the brain scans, the boys and girls were processing math information in the same way. 

What’s more, the differences between the children’s brains and the adults’ were consistent whether they were compared to women or men, signalling that sex differences didn’t emerge with age and maturity accounted for the contrasts between the kids and older people. 

‘It’s not just that boys and girls are using the math network in the same ways but that similarities were evident across the entire brain,’ said the study’s first author and postdoc fellow, Dr Alyssa Kersey. 

‘This is an important reminder that humans are more similar to each other than we are different.’    

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