Just like literature, mathematics can boot up your brain

Anyone who knows the recent research that shows that a reader’s brains are directly, measurably affected by reading fiction won’t be surprised to learn that mathematics can have a similar effect – at least on mathematicians. A recent article in Nature citing research in Frontiers of Human Neurooscience describes how scientists at University College London used nuclear magnetic resonance imaging to track the response of mathematicians’ brains to equations – but specifically those that the mathematicians regarded as “beautiful.”

Comprehension apparently plays a big part in the response – once again, something that won’t surprise those familiar with similar instances in literature. The researchers found that the mathematicians’ brains showed responses in exactly the area associated with appreciation of beautiful paintings or music, confirming the cliche that mathematics is a thing of beauty to mathematicians. The results also showed that the mathematicians had similar responses to the most beautiful, and ugliest, equations. A control group knowing nothing of mathematics showed no such reaction.

Given the effects that literature can have on your brain, it should be no surprise that mathematics can as well. It also ought to comfort both readers and wranglers to know that there are real objective correlates for their subjective experience of beauty, in prose or in numbers. And we have the NMR scans to prove it.

1 Comment on Just like literature, mathematics can boot up your brain

  1. Ah, I can certainly see myself there. I majored in engineering, which meant a lot of math. But I brute forced my way through it, working hard to acquire the skills necessary. Physics could occasionally seem beautiful. But math was never beautiful to me. I never felt any emotions about equations. They excited no more feeling in me than a mechanic feels looking at a wrench. They were just tools.

    On the other hand, I do sometimes sense beauty in literature. When a writer gets something just right, perhaps with a scene or with what a character says, I stand amazed. Just a few days ago, to finish up a book I’ve been working on, I read this from Hamlet’s famous ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy:

    But that the dread of something after death,
    The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
    No traveller returns, puzzles the will
    And makes us rather bear those ills we have
    Than fly to others that we know not of?

    Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
    And thus the native hue of resolution
    Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
    And enterprises of great pith and moment
    With this regard their currents turn awry,
    And lose the name of action.

    It perfectly expresses why the fear of death or some other ill, causes us to “suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” rather than “take up arms against a sea of troubles.”

    Yes, we can say all that with every-day words, not mentioning arrows, a sea of troubles, or an undiscover’d country. But with those words the meaning weakens and vanishes. That’s why Shakespeare can still delight almost 400 years after his death. And centuries from now, people ‘will count themselves cursed’ because the language has changed so much that what he says will have become a a foreign tongue.

    In the tale I’m finishing up for publication, a girl in her mid-teens must ride a very dangerous thoroughbred horse across Klan-infested roads at night to warn her father, because only that horse can get her to him in time. But she shows none of Hamlet’s irresolution. Setting aside all fear of death, she rides into that ‘sea of troubles,’ concerned only for her father and, again unlike Hamlet, confident that God will guide her.

    –Michael W. Perry, Inkling Books

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