How does the brain represent number and perform mathematical calculations? According to a recent and provocative study by Tang and colleagues, it depends on which language you learn. They found that the divergent linguistic and cultural experiences of native Chinese and native English speakers are associated with distinct patterns of brain activity during mathematical processing. Their results raise important questions about the cognitive and neural specificity of cultural influences on mathematical processes and the core nature of mathematical cognition.
Tang and colleagues demonstrate that Chinese and English speakers recruit different cortical networks to solve the same mathematical problems. This observation provides key evidence that cultural experiences shape brain functions. An important next step is to identify the driving force behind this cultural dissociation. However, regardless of the nature of this cultural effect, it seems unlikely that all mathematical cognition is malleable to the influence of culture. Instead, it is likely that the neural circuits that process approximate numerosity in preverbal infants, non-human animals and adults cannot be changed by cultural and linguistic experience. Written language and complex cognitive strategies are defining features of human development. By deliberately examining the impact of these cognitive innovations on neural systems, future research should shed light on the ways in which culture can and cannot transform the mathematical brain.