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Where in the Brain Is a Fraction?

It’s an exciting time in the chronicle of the human brain and the human mind. Latest advances in neuroscience are helping researchers at the University of Colorado unravel the critical interplay between reasoning and brain functioning when young adults solve tasks in the thorny domain of fractions.

Scientific experiments involving computer environments and fMRI brain scans were designed by Ron Tzur, professor of mathematics education at CU Denver’s School of Education & Human Development, and Dietmar Cordes, associate professor in the Department of Radiology at CU’s Anschutz Medical Campus, to better understand complex processes involved in how the human brain uses mathematical symbols and operations. The goal of this project is to find out where and how the brain processes fractions and if specific teaching interventions can improve participants’ learning and response times when solving number-comparison tasks.

“The research literature suggests that the intraparietal sulcus (IPS) is a math-processing region in the brain,” said Tzur. “This is typically where humans process whole numbers and simple addition. But when the human brain needs to process mathematical inverse relationships like 1/5 > 1/7 (though 7 > 5), the mind takes a longer time to compute and reason. This seems to indicate that the different parts of the brain are dividing, governing and specializing in solving a fraction problem.”

Tzur and his team hypothesize that the human brain processes fractions in a unique brain-mind sequence, depending on the structure and order of the numbers and symbols with which one is presented. Thus, supported by modest awards of $17,000 from the University of Colorado Denver and $3,000 from the Leach Family Donor Advised Fund at Community First Foundation, these University of Colorado researchers have created step-by-step tasks to enable differentiating brain activity while students are solving comparison tasks of whole numbers or of fractions. Twenty adults (ages 18 to 45) are participating in the study.

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