CNS 2018 – Graduate Student Award Poster
It’s a persistent societal stereotype that boys are naturally better at math than girls. Behavioral work has suggested no such gender difference in math abilities in children, and now, for the first time, researchers have used statistical analysis of fMRI scans of young children to also refute this stereotype.
In her Graduate Student Award-winning poster at the 25th annual CNS conference (see other recipients below), Alyssa Kersey of the University of Rochester and colleagues presented these findings based on scans of children watching educational math videos. Looking at the frontal-parietal network of the brain associated with math processing, the researchers found no robust gender differences in the rates of development of these networks. “What we find is that the girls and boys show similar levels of neural development in the age range of 3 to 10 years,” Kersey explains.
Kersey discussed this work with CNS, including its importance in getting to the root of any potential legitimate reasons for differences in how boys and girls approach math.
CNS: Why is the topic of gender differences in neural processing of math important to you?
Kersey: Despite substantial efforts by many researchers to show that there are not robust gender differences in math ability, there’s still this widespread public perception that men and boys are better at math than women and girls and that this has a biological origin. This public belief then influences girls’ confidence in their math abilities and their decisions to pursue careers in STEM fields that rely heavily on math. Here, we show that gender differences are not rooted in biological differences by comparing the neural processes that underlie how boys and girls think about math.
CNS: Can you describe the main takeaway of your work?
Kersey: Within the math processing network and even across the entire brain, we see no evidence of any robust biological gender differences underlying mathematical thinking in early childhood. In fact, we see statistically equivalent levels of development throughout the brain. This is important because it shows that in early childhood when children are learning the foundational mathematical concepts that are important for success in STEM fields, the biological processes that underlie mathematical thinking in boys and girls are the same. This suggests that if there are legitimate differences later in development, those differences are not rooted in biological differences in early childhood.
CNS: Were you surprised by any of the results?
Kersey: I wouldn’t say I was necessarily surprised, but I was excited to be able to statistically measure similarities between boys and girls. To our knowledge, this is the first time that anyone has used tests of equivalence to show that the neural activity of two groups is the same. That we see such widespread equivalence between boys and girls is important for reminding us that we are more similar than we are different.
CNS: What’s next for the work?
Kersey: Moving forward, it’s important to take a longitudinal approach in order to understand when biological difference emerge, if they emerge at all. It’s also important to take into account socioeconomic status and other social and cultural influences that may contribute to any gender differences that are sometimes evident later in life.
CNS: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Kersey: By testing for gender differences in early childhood, we’re able to reduce the effects of any social or cultural influences that may come into play later in life. It also allows us to test whether boys or girls show an advantage in the building blocks of mathematics, skills such as arithmetic and logical reasoning.
-Lisa M.P. Munoz
Graduate Student Award Winners
Rachel Romeo, Harvard University, Division of Medical Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Alyssa J. Kersey, University of Rochester
Andrew Chang, McMaster University
Aneesha Nilakantan, Northwestern University
Matthew Moore, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Aditya Jayashankar, National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS)
Alex Wiesman, University of Nebraska Medical Center
Kshipra Gurunandan, Basque Center on Cognition, Brain and Language
Alex Mitko, VA Boston Healthcare System, Translational Research Center for TBI and Stress Disorders (TRACTS)
Post-Doctoral Fellow Award Winners
Julia W. Y. Kam, University of California, Berkley
Eric C. Fields, Boston College, Brandeis University
Avinash Vaidya, Brown University
Alexandra N. Trelle, Stanford University
Victoria Brunsdon, University of Kent
Stacey Bedwell, Birmingham City University
Beatriz Martin-Luengo, National Research University- Higher School Economics
Elena Barbieri, Northwestern University
Rafal Jonczyk, Adam Mickiewicz University
David Rothlein, VA Boston Healthcare System
*These award recipients represent just a fraction of the about 1,000 posters presented at CNS 2018.