Logical Vs Creative Thinking – Why Some Students Prefer Math Over Art
Posted On September 16, 2020
The Beauty of Paintings and Numbers
It may be strange to some, but where some appreciate the aesthetic of melodies, paintings and ceramic creations; others find beauty in patterns and mathematical formula.
In a study published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was employed to visualize the brains of 15 mathematicians while they gazed upon formulae that they had previously identified as either being ugly or beautiful.
It was found that the brain activity in the medial orbito-frontal cortex – the same part of the brain that is most active when experiencing the beauty of art and music – was significantly elevated in response to ‘beautiful formulae’.
This was an expected result, but had important implications for neuroscience – giving rise to further questions like what makes a mathematical formula beautiful? For some it may seem absurd that a self-evident sensory artform like music may be compared to an abstract relationship between numbers, but the fact remains that mathematics has something special about it.
So, do some students simply appreciate math more than art, and vice-versa? Is this an innate separation based on individual ability or interest, or is it learned? First, we need to understand where this divergence likely arises.
The Left Side Vs The Right Side Of The Brain
The cerebrum – the ‘higher brain’ is made up of two hemispheres. The left side of the brain is commonly associated with logic while the right side of the brain is associated with creativity. Generally, we use both sides of the brain – however the proportion of activity on each may vary based on the individual.
In psychology, the two can be separated by convergent thinking and divergent thinking. Convergent thinking is based on analysis and deducing – this can be thought of as IQ. Divergent thinking on the other hand is focused on novelty – for instance finding new uses for familiar objects or multiple solutions to the same problem. Divergent thinking is creative thinking – right side, convergent is logical thinking – left side.
In the past it was thought that individual students could be placed into one of these two categories, based on the way they think. However, more recently, studies using psychological writing tests have found that in fact it was seldom possible to distinguish students that would have traditionally been thought of as convergent thinkers (science students) and those thought of as divergent thinkers (arts students). Although this says little about the brain activity involved in students that are better at science than art, it does rebuke previous psychological criteria for making such judgements.
Stereotypes And Early Environmental Factors In Arts And STEM
Another study where students were asked to adopt particular stereotypes – for instance a poet vs a rigid librarian- when writing a creative piece, there was a marked discrepancy in results favoring those writing from the perspective of a poet. This suggests that there may be a particular state of mind that helps students when performing creative tasks as compared to logical ones.
Although this was a simulated environment, for some time now it has been argued that early messaging by teachers can create disparity among students that pursue STEM and those that choose not to. Messages like, “It’s okay, not everyone can do difficult math”, can prime students in negative ways and create self-categorization.
Thinking mathematical ability is innate can often dissuade students from pursuing math and science in later years. The normalization of the phrase ‘I can’t do math”, is startling. If someone said “I can’t read”, this would be met with disbelief and encouragement, but the former is just accepted as self-evident truth.
Interventions have been helpful in some cases. Some researchers have found that instead of dismissing the concerns of students, teachers that taught their students to persist had much greater results when teaching math. Teaching students that intelligence can grow with hard work, helped improve students’ grades by 1/10 of a letter grade – a modest but still significant improvement. It shows a teacher’s support can uplift student’s morale and grades in difficult courses.
It stems to reason then that the leaning of students away from math may be due to environmental factors early in their academic life rather than any innate inability. Math is of course like a language, and if you don’t use it, you cannot learn it fluently.
Case Study – Societal Norms Regarding Math And Art
An interesting case study in the journal Cognition, found relatable distinction between mathematical formula and their perceived beauty by lay people. This study comprised of three parts, each part comprising of a different group of individuals.
First mathematical formulae were matched with paintings – each formulae matched with the painting that was most comparable to its beauty. Second, mathematical formulae were similarly matched with sonatas. Third, mathematical formulae were rated out of ten based on criteria including seriousness, universality, profundity, novelty, clarity, simplicity, elegance, intricacy, and sophistication.
The study found there was remarkable similarity in judgement by lay people of mathematical beauty that was comparable to the capacity of laypeople to judge art and music. This is a significant observation as it reflects our societal norms and perception of mathematics. Everyone can appreciate music and paintings because that are ‘more accessible’, but it turns out that math is likely simply overlooked due to perception.
Students that have never delved in math have not had a chance to appreciate it, and so have not had a chance to dive deep into the left hemisphere orientated logic and reason. This is likely true for math students who have resisted creative pursuits on the basis of belittlement and disregard.
There is a distinction between students that favor math over art. This difference is presented in varying brain activity, but has not been otherwise quantified by reliable psychological metrics. Although IQ and logical thinking does have an innate component, it seems a student’s preference for mathematics has a large environmental component as well stemming from stereotyping and early teacher messaging.
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