Do Gifted Students Have a Better Brain?
Some people probably suspected the math whiz from grade school wasn’t in his right mind. Apparently he wasn’t — he was in his right and his left mind.
A recent study of adolescents with above-average math abilities found the right and left halves of their brains are apparently better able to interact and share information than the brains of average students.
“Giftedness in math, music or art may be the by-product of a brain that has functionally organized itself in a different way,” said Michael O’Boyle, psychologist at the University of Melbourne and one of the study’s co-authors.
But parents shouldn’t necessarily rush off to try to shape their children into geniuses. Researchers caution over the educational implications of the study, even while acknowledging the environment plays a part, alongside genetics, in brain development.
“There’s a lot of interest in how training and learning can affect the brain’s functional organization and structure,” says Dr. Heidi Roth, assistant professor and cognitive neurologist at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Department of Neurology. “But it’s controversial.”
Roth adds, “We have recently become aware of the striking ability of the brain to change its organization depending on experience. For example, people who are highly skilled string instrument players will have greater representation in the brain for the left hand, because special skills in the left hand are needed to play these instruments.”
Yet O’Boyle questions whether these findings could apply to education. “I don’t think we can create a math genius without the innate talent already there.”
For the study, published in the April issue of Neuropsychology, researchers at the U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences at Fort Benning, Ga., and the University of Melbourne, Australia, compared the responses of math-gifted students to average students on a computerized visual test.
In the experiment, 60 students looked at a computer screen where a pair of large letters was displayed. These letters were formed by arranging small rows of other letters, such as a large letter H made of smaller E’s.
Students were asked to determine if the large pair of letters matched, and if the larger letters matched the letters that formed them.
The average students used only one half of their brain for answering these questions. For matching larger letters, these students used the right half of their brain, which has been associated with understanding whole visual objects.
And for matching large letters with the smaller letters that formed them, the average students used their left brains, generally associated with analyzing visual parts.
But the math prodigies were faster and more accurate using either side of their brains to understand both whole objects and component parts. Their skill indicates there may be more cooperative processing of information among the halves of these students’ brains.
Bridge Between Hemispheres May Explain Skills
Differences in the brain functioning of the gifted and average students might be explained by a difference in the corpus callosum, a part of the brain made of dense bundles of nerve fibers.
“It’s the conduit for information crossing from one hemisphere of the brain to another,” explains Roth.
“The corpus callosum allows the two hemispheres of the brain to speak to one another,” Roth adds. “If it’s severed, the integration between the two hemispheres is very poor.”
Some research indicates the corpus callosum is larger in left-handed people, who are overrepresented among the math-gifted.
Of note as well, all the students in the study — 18 math-gifted middle school students, 18 average middle school students, and 24 average college students — were male.
The researchers explained prenatal exposure to testosterone might be responsible for the high numbers of males among math-gifted students.
The authors also note other research claiming math-gifted children tend to be left-handed males who are nearsighted and have a higher than average incidence of allergy, migraine and other immune disorders.