Math brain

Having a positive attitude about math is as large a predictor as IQ and other factors in determining whether children will excel at it.

Image of child diving into a pool of numbers, artist Riki Blanco

Attitude is everything — at least if you want to be great at math. Researchers for the first time have found the brain pathway that helps explain why elementary school children with positive attitudes about math are better at it.

“Based on our data, the unique contribution of positive attitude to math achievement is as large as the contribution from IQ,” says Lang Chen, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar in psychiatry and behavioral sciences.

Chen is the lead author of a study published Jan. 24 in Psychological Science that says a positive attitude about math links to better function of the hippocampus, an important memory center in the brain, while working on arithmetic problems.

Researchers previously hypothesized that the brain’s reward centers might drive the link between attitude and achievement — perhaps children with better attitudes were better at math because they found it more rewarding or motivating.

“Instead, we saw that if you have a strong interest and self-perceived ability in math, it results in enhanced memory and more efficient engagement of the brain’s problem-solving capacities,” says the study’s senior author, Vinod Menon, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.

Children with poor attitudes toward math rarely performed well in the subject. “A positive attitude opens the door for children to do well but does not guarantee that they will; that depends on other factors as well,” Chen says.