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Brain mechanisms of spatial reasoning in mathematics

James McClelland

Lucie Stern Professor in the Social Sciences, Psychology

Bruce McCandliss

Professor of Education

Anthony Norcia

Professor (Research) of Psychology

Mastering the ability to form appropriate spatial representations from numerical and mathematical expressions is an essential step toward success in mathematics, engineering, and the quantitative sciences. Fostering this ability is a goal for education and dovetails with recent advances in methods for understanding brain representations of space and with increased interest among cognitive neuroscientists in the processes involved in representation and processing of numbers. Very little, however, is currently known about how we map numbers onto space, and even less is known about how education and experience shape these important neurocognitive processes. This project will forge a long-term collaboration between laboratories in education  neuroscience, vision neuroscience and neuro-development, and computational cognitive science to address these issues. The project’s broad goals are to leverage precise mapping of spatial representations and dynamics of neural activity to understand how brain mechanisms of spatial reasoning are brought into play during symbolic mathematical cognition and to identify individual differences in these mechanisms that co-vary with mathematical ability and  mathematical experience. Ultimately, this work may lead to improved methods for enhancing mathematical ability and increasing access to career opportunities in science, technology, and mathematics.