Kids who have a larger and better-connected hippocampus learn math better when tutored

This 2013 Stanford study of 24 eight- and nine-year-old children found that measurements of limbic system areas predicted how well the 11 boys and 13 girls would respond to 8 weeks of one-on-one math tutoring!

“Pretutoring hippocampal volume predicted performance improvements. Furthermore, pretutoring intrinsic functional connectivity of the hippocampus with dorsolateral and ventrolateral prefrontal cortices and the basal ganglia also predicted performance improvements.

Brain regions associated with learning and memory, and not regions typically involved in arithmetic processing, are strong predictors of responsiveness to math tutoring in children. More generally, our study suggests that quantitative measures of brain structure and intrinsic brain organization can provide a more sensitive marker of skill acquisition than behavioral measures.”

None of the assessments, such as IQ and working memory tests, predicted how much benefit a child would receive from one-on-one math tutoring. The 16 children in the control group who didn’t receive one-on-one math tutoring didn’t improve their math performance over the 8-week period. Adults use different brain areas when solving math problems.


Much of the news coverage was from vested interests who dismissed the findings. A typical headline was “Your child’s brain on math: Don’t bother?”

The No Child Left Behind people were concerned that science could predict that some children were better suited to math tutoring than others. Psychiatrists and psychologists responded with general dismissals like small sample size, and the journalist let that stand without asking them how they disagreed with any of the specific P-, T- and other values found in the study’s supplementary material.

The researchers were careful to invoke a politically-correct meme of “individual differences” 19 times, including the study’s title!

“Individual differences” isn’t a causal explanation, however. The journalist whiffed and also gave a pass to the researchers on this uninformative-but-PC meme.

It certainly would have been within the scope of this study for the researchers to inquire further into causes for the findings. It possibly could have informed us of causal factors had the children’s test battery included emotional content, as did the subjects in the Early emotional experiences change our brains: Childhood maltreatment is associated with reduced volume in the hippocampus study.

http://www.pnas.org/content/110/20/8230.full “Neural predictors of individual differences in response to math tutoring in primary-grade school children”

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