Image: Brain scan
Functional magnetic resonance images show which areas of the brain are activated when native Chinese speakers (top row) and native English speakers (bottom row) take on tasks involving symbols (left column) and numbers (right column).
updated 6/26/2006 6:49:31 PM ET 2006-06-26T22:49:31

Things add up differently for native English speakers, compared with people who learned Chinese as a first language.

Simple arithmetic was easily done by both groups, but they used different parts of the brain, a new study shows.

Researchers used brain imaging to see which parts of the brain were active while people did simple addition problems, such as 3 plus 4 equals 7. All participants were working with Arabic numerals, which are used in both cultures.

Both groups engaged a portion of the brain called the inferior parietal cortex, which is involved in quantity representation and reading.

But native English speakers also showed activity in a language processing area of the brain, while native Chinese speakers used a brain region involved in the processing of visual information, according to the report in Tuesday’s issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The difference “may mean that Chinese speakers perform problems in a different manner than do English speakers,” said lead author Yiyuan Tang of Dalian University of Technology in Dalian, China.

“In part that might represent the difference in language. It could be that the difference in language encourages different styles of computation and this may be enhanced by different methods of learning to deal with numbers,” Tang said in an interview via e-mail.

“We believe language plays a role in the calculation,” Tang said. But Tang added that cultural factors may also play a part, such as math learning strategies and school training.

These cultural differences using numbers may help scientists develop better strategies for doing calculations, Tang explained: “It could well turn out that certain strategies may be optimal, even when used with a different type of language.”

Richard Nisbett, co-director of the Culture and Cognition Program at the University of Michigan, said “the work is important because it tells us something about the particular pathways in the brain that underlie some of the differences between Asians and Westerners in thought patterns.”

“Ultimately this kind of work will show us when these pathways begin to diverge, and how it may be possible to teach Westerners some of the advantages of Asian thought and Asians some of the advantages of Western thought,” said Nisbett, who was not part of the research team.

Nisbett last year reported on differences in the way Asians and North Americans view pictures. He tracked eye movements and determined that, when shown a photograph, North American students of European background paid more attention to the object in the foreground of a scene, while students from China spent more time studying the background and taking in the whole scene.

“They literally are seeing the world differently,” he said.

The new work extends his findings, Nisbett said, “in that it indicates that the reasoning differences that we find between Asians and Westerners are really quite deep.”

The new study was funded by the National Science Foundation of China and the McKnight Research Program.

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