The Unsuspected Consequences of Skipping Math Classes

Brain, Behaviour and the Bond with Mathematics

You probably remember it: that moment in high school when you were asked to make choices that would shape your academic future. One of those choices often involved deciding whether to continue studying maths. For some of us, it was a no-brainer—we loved the logic, the problem-solving, the sense of satisfaction when a complicated equation finally made sense. But for others, letting go of maths was like shrugging off a cumbersome backpack at the end of a long hike.

So, what if I told you that your decision about studying maths could have affected more than your course schedule? What if it could have impacted your brain development and cognition? A recent study reveals that the absence of maths education beyond the age of 16 might be disadvantageous for adolescents. And we’re not just talking about being able to calculate tips or manage personal finances. We’re talking about essential cognitive functions like reasoning, problem-solving, memory, and learning.

Imagine 133 students between 14 and 18 years old, sitting in a room at the University of Oxford, about to embark on an experiment that will explore their cognitive abilities. The researchers’ goal? To investigate the impact of ongoing math education—or lack thereof—on their brain development.

You see, in the UK, unlike in most other countries, students have the opportunity to cease their maths education at 16. This unique situation created an excellent petri dish for scientists to examine whether this absence of maths could influence cognitive and brain development. What they found is more than a little surprising.

Maths, the Brain, and Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid

Do you remember your high school chemistry? If so, you might recall hearing about gamma-Aminobutyric acid—or GABA for short. It’s a vital chemical for brain plasticity, essentially the brain’s ability to adapt and learn. This brain chemical is primarily found in a key brain region that oversees many crucial cognitive functions, including—you guessed it—maths.

In this study, the researchers found that students who discontinued their maths education had a lower amount of GABA. And that wasn’t all. The levels of this chemical in students’ brains could even be used to predict their maths attainment scores nearly 19 months later. That’s right—the decision to drop maths had a physiological effect that could predict future academic performance. Interestingly, before the students stopped studying maths, the researchers did not find any differences in the amount of this brain chemical.

Maths and Its Ripple Effect on Life

It’s no secret that maths skills come with a myriad of advantages. They can impact your employment prospects, socioeconomic status, and even your mental and physical health. Adolescence, being a critical period associated with substantial brain and cognitive changes, is a significant window during which the absence or presence of maths education can have lasting effects.

Unfortunately, the freedom to opt out of maths education at this crucial age seems to create a gap between those who continue studying maths and those who don’t. While not every adolescent enjoys maths, it’s essential to look at alternative approaches that might engage the same brain area, such as training in logic and reasoning.

What’s more, the impact of the recent pandemic on access to education raises further concerns about the long-term influence on children and adolescents’ brain and cognitive development. With reduced access to education, particularly maths, the effects could potentially be far-reaching.

The Interplay of Biology and Education

Our understanding of the relationship between education and brain development is continually evolving. We are starting to appreciate the complex interplay between biology and education and the effects of missing components in our educational journey, like maths, on our brain and behaviour.

While we may not yet know how to prevent the disparity or its long-term implications, this research offers valuable insight. So, the next time you hear someone say, “Why do I need to learn maths? I’m never going to use it in real life!”, you’ll have a more comprehensive answer. It’s not just about using Pythagoras’ theorem or calculus in your everyday life. It’s about nourishing your brain, boosting your cognitive abilities, and setting the stage for continued growth and development.

George Zacharopoulos, Francesco Sella, Roi Cohen Kadosh. The impact of a lack of mathematical education on brain development and future attainment. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2021; 118 (24): e2013155118; Link