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Are We Born Bookworms or Math Brains?

From an early age, we form preferences and demonstrate increased aptitude in certain subjects versus others. For example, one of my coworkers learned to read at an astoundingly young age; another excelled in math and science courses from the start of her scholastic career. I, on the other hand, reached the peak of my math prowess with a mastery of long division in second grade and watched my skills sink from there.

With the numerous times we hear phrases like “I’m not a math person” or “I’m left-brained,” one wonders whether we’re born with these proclivities or if we develop them as we age. Many of us claim strength in one or the other as if it’s an unchangeable fact, but how much control do we really have over our intelligence levels?

Intelligence and Inheritance
Whether who we are—our personalities, intelligence levels, likes and dislikes, etc.—is shaped by our genes or our environments is a long-standing debate with little chance of being resolved. That’s because numerous studies suggest that there isn’t a definitive answer; really, it’s a little of both.

When it comes to intelligence specifically, heredity plays a big role. Various studies have attempted to figure out the relation of genes to “g,” the term used to describe general intelligence (which admittedly requires an assumption that such a thing is quantifiable based on aptitude tests). Identical twins, who are useful subjects for these studies because their genes are exactly the same, have a high level of correlation between “g” and heredity.

In March 2009, a study at UCLA using a powerful brain scanner found that the part of the brain used for math calculations is determined by genes by 85 percent. Different parts of the brain contain varying amounts of myelin, which insulates axons sending signals throughout the brain. The thicker the myelin, the faster the signals are sent and information is processed, and since the amount of myelin we have is determined by heredity, some areas of the brain that have more (like the part dedicated to math) are therefore more dependent on genes than others. The part of the brain used for memory is only 45 percent determined by heredity, for example.

Smarts Start at Home, Too
We might be able to blame our parents for our lack of mastery in geometry or calculus, but that’s only part of the equation. Even among identical twins, there isn’t a 100 percent correlation between intelligence and heredity—in other words, environment plays a smaller, but essential, role as well.

If someone comes from a family of mathematical geniuses, there’s a good chance she’ll have a natural comprehension of the subject. But that doesn’t mean she’s destined to be a mathematician, especially if that skill isn’t developed for whatever reason. It means that, if given the opportunity to explore the math world, she might be more likely to excel than someone who comes from a family of writers. However, without the necessary environmental factors, that potential won’t amount to much. Like anything else, natural talent needs encouragement to thrive. Likewise, skills we might not inherit from our families can be fostered and honed in the right situations. For example, if a child of the scribe family is introduced to math from an early age and given steady exposure, he could become a math wizard, too. Genes play a role in our development, but they don’t matter nearly as much outside of the proper context.

A Half-Brained Concept
Recently, the relationship between environment and skill levels was explored at the University of Madison-Wisconsin. Two professors wanted to find out whether males actually do better at math than females—an outdated, but still popular stereotype. They found that whether boys or girls outperform each other has more to do with culture than anything else. In countries that offer more opportunities for women and promote equality among both genders, girls perform just as well or even better than their male peers. They also argued that the variability has much to do with how each country views math skills—those that view it as an inborn trait (which they believe the U.S. does) versus those who champion the effort above all else will have differences in performance levels as well.

Men are often associated with so-called “left-brained” skills like math and logic, whereas women are believed to be dominated by their “right brains,” the centers of emotion and intuition. Not only is this old-fashioned and incorrect way of thinking (as the aforementioned study proves), but the whole “left brain versus right brain” way of thinking is inaccurate as well. Take language, for example—a study by Nobel Prize winner Roger W. Sperry in the 1960s found that language is processed in the left hemisphere. However, later research determined that the right hemisphere is also involved in the process, but plays a smaller role. One side might be specialized toward certain functions, but both hemispheres have to work together in order to function smoothly. Similarly, emotion, generally considered a right-brain attribute, is handled by parts located in both sides as well.

Ultimately, what determines whether we’re stronger in a certain subject isn’t necessarily inborn or a matter of our surroundings; rather, it’s a combination of both, a mixture of heredity and environmental factors that align to create Mathletes, computer geniuses, bookworms, and so forth. What doesn’t determine our level of intelligence or particular predilection is gender. Chromosomes don’t make us predisposed toward a certain subject, just as being especially intuitive or logical has nothing to do with favoring one brain hemisphere over the other. After all, if we all walked around using only half of our brains, we wouldn’t be able to function enough to master anything. Doesn’t sound too smart, does it?

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