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Study: Both sides of the brain process numbers

Few functions and neural pathways are confined entirely to one brain hemisphere or the other.

By Brooks Hays
Study: Both sides of the brain process numbers
MRI scans proved number visualization to be a bilateral brain process. Photo by Jan-Peter Kasper

JENA, Germany, Jan. 27 (UPI) -- New research suggests humans use both sides of the brain to visualize and process numbers. Math -- cerebrally speaking -- is a tag-team effort.

Despite the best efforts of scientists to emphasize the complexity of brain function, the concept of brain lateralization continues to be exaggerated in the public imagination: left-brained people are supposed to be good at logic and language, right-brained people are supposed to be creative dreamers destined for the arts.

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It's true that the brain divides its duties, but the brain's two hemispheres also share many tasks. Few functions and neural pathways are confined entirely to one hemisphere or the other.

A new study in Germany suggests the visual processing of numbers is a duty evenly divided between the two hemispheres.

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Neuroscientists from Friedrich Schiller University Jena and Jena University Hospital used MRI scans to gain high-contrast 3D imagery of test subjects' brains as they performed mathematical tasks requiring them to visualize numbers.

The imagery revealed a portion of both hemispheres is activated during number visualization. Scientists are calling it the "visual number form area," or NFA.

"This region has been a kind of blind spot in the human brain until now," researcher Mareike Grotheer said in a press release.

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The area is hidden by the air and bone of the ear canal, making it hard to image.

The new findings, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, suggest the NFA is key not just in number processing but all sorts of visualization.

"In this region not only numbers are being processed but also faces and objects," added Gyula Kovacs, a psychologist at Jena.

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