For the first time, scientists have identified the brain pathway that links a positive attitude toward maths to achievement in the subject.
In a study of elementary school students, researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine found that having a positive attitude about maths was connected to the better function of the hippocampus, an important memory centre in the brain, during the performance of arithmetic problems.
The findings will be published online Jan. 24 in Psychological Science.
Educators have long observed higher maths scores in children who show more interest in maths and perceive themselves as being better at it. But it has not been clear if this attitude simply reflects other capacities, such as higher intelligence.
The new study found that, even once IQ and other confounding factors were accounted for, a positive attitude toward maths still predicted which students had stronger maths performance.
‘Attitude is really important’
“Attitude is really important,” said Lang Chen, PhD, the study’s lead author and a postdoctoral scholar in psychiatry and behavioural sciences. “Based on our data, the unique contribution of positive attitude to maths achievement is as large as the contribution from IQ.”
The scientists had not expected the contribution of attitude to be so large, Chen said. The mechanism underlying its link to cognitive performance was also unexpected.
“It was really surprising to see that the link works through a very classical learning and memory system in the brain,” said the study’s senior author, Vinod Menon, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences. Researchers had previously hypothesized that the brain’s reward centres might drive the link between attitude and achievement — perhaps children with better attitudes were better at maths because they found it more rewarding or motivating. “Instead, we saw that if you have a strong interest and self-perceived ability in math, it results in enhanced memory and more efficient engagement of the brain’s problem-solving capacities,” Menon said.
The researchers administered standard questionnaires to 240 children ages 7 to 10, assessing demographics, IQ, reading ability and working-memory capacity. The children’s level of maths achievement was measured with tests of their knowledge of arithmetic facts and ability to solve maths word problems. Parents or guardians answered surveys about the children’s behavioural and emotional characteristics, as well as their anxiety about maths and general anxiety. Children also answered a survey that assessed their attitude toward math, including questions about interest in maths and self-perceived maths ability, as well as their attitude toward academics in general.
Forty-seven children from the group also participated in MRI brain scans while performing arithmetic problems. Tests were conducted outside the MRI scanner to discern which problem-solving strategies they used. An independent group of 28 children also was given MRI scans and other assessments in an attempt to replicate the findings from the cohort previously given brain scans.
Opening the door
Maths performance correlated with a positive attitude toward maths even after statistically controlling for IQ, working memory, maths anxiety, general anxiety and general attitude toward academics, the study found. Children with poor attitudes toward maths rarely performed well in the subject, while those with strongly positive attitudes had a range of maths achievement.
“A positive attitude opens the door for children to do well but does not guarantee that they will; that depends on other factors as well,” Chen said.
From the brain-imaging results, the scientists found that, when a child was solving a maths problem, his or her positive-attitude scores correlated with activation in the hippocampus, an important memory and learning centre in the brain. Activity in the brain’s reward centres, including the amygdala and the ventral striatum, was not linked to a positive attitude toward math. Statistical modelling of the brain imaging results suggested that the hippocampus mediates the link between positive attitude and efficient retrieval of facts from memory, which in turn is associated with better problem-solving abilities.
“Having a positive attitude acts directly on your memory and learning system,” Chen said. “I think that’s really important and interesting.”
The study could not disentangle the extent to which a positive attitude came from a child’s prior success in math. “We think the relationship between positive attitude and maths achievement is mutual, bi-directional,” Chen said. “We think it’s like bootstrapping: A good attitude opens the door to high achievement, which means you then have a better attitude, getting you into a good circle of learning. And it can probably go the other way and be a vicious circle, too.”
The findings may provide a new avenue for improving academic performance and learning in children who are struggling, Menon said, cautioning that this idea still needs to be tested through active interventions.
“Typically, we focus on skill learning in individual academic domains, but our new work suggests that looking at children’s beliefs about a subject and their self-perceived abilities might provide another inroad to maximizing learning,” Menon said. The findings also offer a potential explanation for how a particularly passionate teacher can nurture students’ interest and learning capacities for a subject, he added. Inspiring teachers may be instinctively sharing their own interest, as well as instilling students in the belief that they can be good at the subject, building a positive attitude even if the student did not have it before.
Other Stanford authors of the paper are former research assistant Se Ri Bae; research scientists Shaozheng Qin, PhD, and Tianwen Chen, PhD; and former postdoctoral scholars Christian Battista, PhD, and Tanya Evans, PhD.
Menon is a member of Stanford’s Child Health Research Institute, Stanford Bio-X and the Stanford Neurosciences Institute. The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health (grants HD047520, HD059205 and HD057610).
Stanford’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences also supported the work.