New research suggests that blind people’s brains may be able to adapt regions usually used for sight to help solve math problems.
“Across all humans, numerical thinking is supported by similar areas in the brain,” says Shipra Kanjlia, a graduate student in Psychological and Brain Sciences at Johns Hopkins University. We are taught to solve math problems from an early age using visuals. Does this brain usage change for people who have never “seen the number of people at a party or the number of flowers in a field?”
Kanjlia asked 17 people born blind and 19 sighted people wearing blindfolds to solve math problems while monitored by MRI. When they worked out the solutions, the standard parts of the brain lit up with activity. But in the blind-since-birth participants, another region lit up: part of the visual cortex. The harder the blind volunteers thought about the algebra problems, the stronger the visual cortex shone. The same region remained dark for sighted participants, even though blindfolded. It appeared that the brains of blind participants had repurposed the unused region to assist in number processing.
Previously, researchers found that the visual cortex can be rewired to handle other sensory input, such as hearing and touch. The ability to do algebra, however, suggests that the brain can adjust the visual cortex to handle more tasks.
So are people who are born blind better at math? No, but the findings indicate that the brain is very good at resource management in attending to higher functions.