The assertion that boys excel over girls in math had previously been proven false, but a new study used brain scans to confirm that kids have equal abilities.

By Maressa Brown
November 11, 2019

Plenty of parents and teachers know full well that a child's aptitude for math has nothing to do with their sex, but for years, studies have used only test scores to confirm this truth. A  new study published Friday in the journal Science of Learning went a different route, utilizing brain scans to illustrate that young children use the same mechanisms and networks in the brain to solve math problems, regardless of their sex.

A group of researchers, lead by Carnegie Mellon University's Jessica Cantlon, used functional MRI to measure brain activity in 104 kids (aged 3 to 10, 55 of them female) while they watched an educational video that covered early math topics, like counting and addition. The researchers then compared scans from the boys and girls to evaluate brain similarity. They also looked at brain maturity by comparing the kids' scans to those taken from a group of 63 adults (25 of them women) who watched the same math videos.

Students high-fiving after completing math at whiteboard
Credit: Monashee Frantz/Getty Images

The result: There was no difference in how boys and girls processed math skills and were equally engaged while watching the educational videos. There was also no difference in the brain development of the boys and girls or brain maturity when the kids' scans were compared to the adults.

Cantlon told CNN that she and her team looked at which areas of the brain respond more strongly to mathematics content in the videos and tasks, compared to non-math content like reading or the alphabet. "So you can define the math network that way by looking at regions that respond more strongly," she said. "When we do that in little girls, we see a particular network of the brain (respond), and when we do that same analysis in boys we see the exact same regions. You can overlay the network from girls on top of the network from boys and they are identical."

The researchers also compared the results of the Test of Early Mathematics Ability, a standardized test for 3- to 8-year-old children, from 97 participants (50 girls) to gauge the rate of math development. Math ability was found to be equivalent among the children and did not show a difference in gender or with age.

Alyssa Kersey, postdoctoral scholar at the Department of Psychology, University of Chicago and first author on the paper, explained in a release on the study, "It's not just that boys and girls are using the math network in the same ways but that similarities were evident across the entire brain. This is an important reminder that humans are more similar to each other than we are different."

These findings serve to dismiss harmful, yet persistent stereotypes that lead girls to be steered away from science, technology, engineering and mathematic (STEM) fields. The bottom line for Cantlon: "Typical socialization can exacerbate small differences between boys and girls that can snowball into how we treat them in science and math. We need to be cognizant of these origins to ensure we aren't the ones causing the gender inequities."