Tuesday, April 21

Fraction Neurons

From NewScientist (full article):

FRACTIONS may be written as the ratio of two whole numbers, but that's not how our brains process them. Instead it seems we respond to fractions directly, without processing whole numbers along the way. This suggests that kids, who often dread fractions, could be taught them more intuitively.

Previous tests have shown that specifc groups of neurons respond to different whole numbers, with the number one altering the firing patterns of different neurons than the number three. Now Simon Jacob and Andreas Nieder of the University of Tübingen in Germany have shown that we have fraction-specific neurons too.

The pair scanned the brains of adults as they were shown a variety of different fractions - either as numerical ratios or in words. In both cases, specific groups of neurons altered their firing patterns. Crucially, control experiments showed that the volunteers weren't responding first to whole numbers, and then calculating the ratio, but were reacting to the fraction itself (The Journal of Neuroscience, DOI: 10.1523/jneurosci.0651-09.2009).

Fractions tend to be taught as ratios of whole numbers, but Nieder says this may not tap our neural machinery in the most constructive way, making fractions harder to grasp than they need to be.

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