According to one hypothesis, human mathematical ability is related to language ability, whereas another hypothesis suggests that mathematical ability stems from humans’ intuitive knowledge of space, time, and number.

Researchers collected functional MRI scans of 15 professional mathematicians and 15 nonmathematicians of equal academic standing. Both groups were presented with a series of high-level mathematical and nonmathematical statements, and asked to evaluate each statement as true, false, or meaningless.

Statements pertaining to mathematical analysis, algebra, geometry, and topology activated a particular set of bilateral intraparietal, inferior temporal, and prefrontal brain regions in mathematicians, but not in nonmathematicians. These brain regions were distinct from those associated with language processing and semantics, which were activated by nonmathematical statements in both mathematicians and nonmathematicians.

The regions activated by high-level mathematical statements in mathematicians were also activated by numbers and simple arithmetic calculations in mathematicians and nonmathematicians alike. The results support the hypothesis that high-level mathematical thinking deploys the same neural network as basic number sense, which is distinct from the language network.

According to the authors, the findings might explain why number sense in early childhood can help predict subsequent mathematical performance.

http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2016/04/06/1603205113