Tuesday, July 8, 2014

A Possible Insight from Genetics

The headline for an article by Helen Briggs, Health Editor for the BBC News Web site reads:
Same genes 'drive maths and reading ability'
In the body of the article, Briggs makes it clear that these results are far from conclusive. Nevertheless, they may provide a way for us to refine the questions we ask, even if the answers have yet to be resolved.

One way of looking at the results is to ask where there is commonality between the ability to read and reason with text and the ability to do the same with mathematics. Several years ago I did some tutoring; and I realized that, for this particular student, an equation was just a string a symbols whose only structure lay in the left-to-right ordering. The idea that it was necessary to "parse" the equation as part of understanding it (and, therefore, solving it) seemed to be absent. In a similar respect reading with understanding requires getting beyond the string of words to the recognition of how that string is structured.

Gerald Edelman recognized that there was a "cognitive leap" that had to be taken between the ability to identify objects and the ability to identify structural relationships among those objects. He called the first stage "perceptual categorization" and the second "presyntax." The idea that there may be genes associated with the capacity for presyntax suggests that we may also wish to ask whether or not there are also brain regions with a similar association. At the very least, scientists should be thinking about how to design experiments to explore this matter in greater depth. After all, the capacity for reading the symbols of text and mathematics should also apply to reading music notation!

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