Jun 25 2014
An interesting piece of popular science with a spurious pedigree is the idea that brain function is determined by hemispheral activity. We say that the left hemisphere is for quantitative, precision thinking such as mathematics and spatial reasoning, whereas the right brain deals with holistic activity, recognising patterns and governing intuition. So we talk about somebody being either left- or right-brained, with right-brained people being creative, disorganized and impulsive while the left-brained are fastidious, numerate and boring. This belief isn’t just imposed on others, but governs self-belief as well.
It turns out that none of this holds much weight. Many of us go through our education emphasizing either the arts or sciences, with students who consider themselves more quantitative shying away from softer tasks like writing essays or analysing literature, and those who find painting a picture or writing poetry more interesting than solving equations tending to ignore the more rigorous subjects. There’s an idea that you’re good at either one or the other of these, and like many prominent ideas it’s gained a degree of accuracy simply by virtue of how seriously it’s been taken. Since we tend to believe these things and allow them to govern our life decisions, they can determine what we end up learning and being good at.
But it’s not true that you can only be good at one or the other. It turns out that, in terms of actual ability, whether innate or developed, those of us who are able to understand complex mathematical subjects also do well in tests of verbal intelligence, and vice versa. There’s a strong correlation between these abilities, but often, by the time we’ve completed our formal education, we’ve learned much more of one of these than the other. Testing students who’ve graduated or are attending university, you find that most of them favour one of these areas more than the other. Those of us who do okay at both have what’s called a “high flat” profile, scoring in the top deciles for both mathematical reasoning and understanding of language.
To me, this isn’t much of a surprise. So far as I’m concerned, both of these categories of tasks are variants of symbol manipulation. They each involve the construction and modification of meaning based on a set of underlying rules. The rules of natural language may seem inconsistent compared to the hard and fast rules of mathematics and formal logic, but the degree of fuzziness is something which can itself be precisely quantified. Linguistics as a science is one of the most rigorous disciplines you can study, and along with mathematics and information theory is one of the “formal sciences,” which collectively provide the framework with which the rest of our knowledge can be described.
So what does all this cold, hard analysis have to do with those of us who enjoy the musicality of poetry and prose, or the transformative imagery of our favourite fiction? To me there’s a richness available in both mathematics and language, a complexity and elegance which combine to create something beautiful. Although to many people mathematics seems dry and too much like hard work, much of what it reveals can be not only useful but surprisingly aesthetically pleasing.
So what educational impact does this have? I do think individual students demonstrate divergent interests and skills, and that some of them respond more readily to English or mathematics instruction. But this doesn’t mean they’re completely resistant to one or the other. For children with a proclivity for the order and neatness of mathematics I find I can appeal to them by focusing on the structural elements of grammar and the logical consistency of the underlying rules from which meaning is constructed. For students who are more interested in the arts or who have a phobia of numbers, mathematical instruction has to be flexible, and I keep in mind the multiple possible approaches to solving the same problem. Each student develops their own understanding of a mathematical topic, and the beauty of mathematics comes from its consistency, such that divergent approaches to the same question converge on a single set of correct answers. So long as a student can understand what they’re doing and how they find the solution to a problem, there is a surprising amount of room for innovation, unique approaches, and the integration of wider knowledge.