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A natural talent or an acquired skill: What makes a great mathematician?

January 2, 2009

What is 6104179 divided by 6913? Can you work it out in your head? And can you do it in under 12 seconds? If so, you could compete at the world mental arithmetic championships.


Gerd Mittring says he knows what it takes to become a math whiz. The IT specialist and psychologist from Bonn organized the competition and is a former world mental arithmetic champion himself. He says math ability is linked to emotion. If you want to be good at math, you have to enjoy it.

Kinjal Shah from India is one of the youngest world champions in mental arithmetic. In second place - Max Weber from Germany. The School pupil Max Weber counts: "145 times 145? Easy, I know that 144 times 144 is 20,736. So I just have to double the square root of 20,736, then add one. Then I add the result to 144 squared, and that gives me 145 times 145 and that’s 21,025."

Quickfire mental arithmetic. Is it a talent or a trick? Do you need a brilliant mind or simply a good teacher?

For this math genius, the answer is clear: you need a bit of both. But, he says, it’s much more than just a numbers game. Mental Arithmetic World Champion Gerd Mittring thinks: "What goes on in my mind is more than plain calculations. There are also emotions that are sometimes pleasant and sometimes unpleasant. For instance, if I don’t feel comfortable when I’m performing, then my arithmetic performance suffers – unlike when I am at ease. Human beings are much more complex than pocket calculators." +++

Andreas is another mathematician who solves mind-boggling math problems on stage. Here, he’s multiplying two five-digit numbers. At the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Roland Friedrich is trying to establish whether excelling in arithmetic is linked to a person’s genes or brain. Using a special brain scanner, he takes a glimpse behind the scenes at test subjects to see what happens during mental arithmetic calculations. The test subjects are given math problems to solve, while he observes brain activity.

Friedrich found to his surprise that brain activity is similar in math whizzes AND less gifted people. Maths geniuses are simply able to solve problems quicker and in a more automated way. But the brain function is essentially the same. Another finding -- the brain doesn’t have a single area responsible for calculation. Instead, a number of regions are used during mental arithmetic... regions that are also used to perform other tasks.

Roland Friedrich from the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences is sure that there is no single gene that determines math ability: "There are probably combinations of genes that influence certain things, such as the plasticity of the brain...in other words, how the brain responds to mental training. Those good at math are certainly more developed at that point, and that’s genetically determined. But it’d have to affect a number of regions."

So you don’t need special genes or a super brain to become a human calculator. The most important thing you can have is a passion for math as a child.

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