Math geniuses aren’t born smart, they just practice

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

math spiral
A picture of Yusnier Viera, the human calculator.

In school, there are always a couple of students who seem to breeze through math class like it was all basic addition! I always assumed their genius-level math abilities were something a person’s born with. However, a new study from the University of Sussex shows it’s all about practice.

C’mon, you can’t fool me! I’d bet a month’s worth of allowance that math geniuses have two brains, and both are specialized to solve complex problems. You better save your money, because the university researchers tested the brain of Yusnier Viera. This man is commonly referred to as the “human calculator,” since he has the insane ability to look at dates far in the future and tell you exactly what day it lands on. The researchers took a scan of Viera’s brain while he was looking at familiar and unfamiliar problems. Surprisingly, the scans revealed there’s nothing unusual about how his brain solved tasks.

For example, when Viera was faced with a familiar math question, he was able to access information stored in the middle part of his brain, which is responsible for long-term memory. I know it sounds like a genius ability, but the researchers say anyone who becomes an expert at something can do it, too. Even when he was solving unfamiliar math problems, his brain didn’t do anything special. Instead, the area responsible for decision-making was activated while he solved the problems, just like anyone else’s would. Overall, he was able to figure out 80% of unfamiliar work and 90% of familiar ones.

Well, that’s still impressive… almost too impressive. I know that autistic children sometimes show incredible math abilities, though, so do researchers think Viera suffers from mild autism?  “Although this kind of ability is seen among some people with autism, it is much rarer in those not on that spectrum,” said Dr. Natasha Sigala, Senior Lecturer in Neuroscience at the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science. “Brain scans of those with autism tend to show a variety of activity patterns, and autistic people are not able to explain how they reach their answer.” Apparently, Viera gained all his extraordinary knowledge through hard work, practice, and motivation.

“This is a message of hope for all of us,” said Sigala. “Experts are made, not born.”

Image of Yusnier Viera courtesy of University of Sussex. Video courtesy of Yusnier Viera, spicymath, and Discovery Channel on YouTube.