What physics can tell us about autism, shopping and learning algebra

11 December 2012

At the Institute of Physics, on the 21 November 2012, Professor Stephen Swithenby of the Open University gave a talk in which he explored the brain via physics.

Professor Stephen Swithenby with an IOP member

The brain is a complex and interesting organ. By studying the brain, we can obtain insights into the nature of cognition and human behaviour.

There is a widespread concern in areas such education, particularly in regards to the teaching and learning of mathematics and behavioural interaction challenges, such as autism. 

Professor Swithenby has been carrying out brain imaging studies in collaboration with other academic centres. 

Neuroscience is significantly relevant in describing and elucidating the mechanisms of brain structure and function. The brain has an enormous plastic capacity and carries on learning for life. 

With better understanding of the neural processes we can dispel some ingrained myths such as: Right/left brain dichotomy, Gardner's multiple intelligences, the existence of an exclusive and fixed critical learning phase in childhood for example.

Several models of cognition have been postulated. Carnegie Learning are focusing their attention on the Adaptive Control of Thought Rational (ACT-R) model of cognition of both declarative and perceptual knowledge, with emphasis on moving from the declarative to the procedural. A good paradigm, grounded on scientific discovery, will be an invaluable asset to teachers (i.e. 'maths phobia'), parents, researchers and policy-makers.

The brain has 100,000.000.000 cells, with up to 50,000 connections per cell. Half of the brain is involved in processing and is constantly re-modelling itself by the continuous action of the synaptic connections. It can be studied with the aid of functional diagnostic methods such as:

1- fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging). The MRI signal is affected by the blood oxygen. By repeating an MRI measurement, the oxygen levels can be compared 9the subject is given a task).

2-PET (positron emission tomography). The emitted positrons meet the electrons, are annihilated and produce two coincident gammas. By repeating the measurement, the radio tracer distributions can be compared at both times. Both fMRI and PET measure blood flow.

3- MEG (magnetoencephalography). Detecting and mapping the brain's magnetic fields produced by its electrical currents. MEG has a high time resolution.

Autism (or autistic spectrum disorders, ASD) was defined by Kanner and Asperger in the 1940's as a childhood disorder of social interaction. The concept has been defined and refined since then, thus including impairments in social, communicative and imaginative development. MEG aims to find the neurophysiological basis of autism. Recent studies reveal a hypo-responsivity in face processing which manifests from childhood, hinting at abnormalities of the face-recognition cerebral pathways and consequently, 'less tuned' social interaction and awareness.

In mathematics education, algebra appears to be more 'phobia-prone' than arithmetic. fMRI studies suggest the existence of declarative knowledge for the rules of algebra (lateral inferior prefrontal cortex gets activated when studying the rules). The perception and recognition of algebraic form is carried out at the fusiform cortex (activated with the practice of algebraic reading), and finally the anterior prefrontal cortex gets activated when using the required transformations for reasoning the result. These results suggest that the differences in algebraic processing rely on a strong perceptual component and that practice makes better! In these studies, MEG can be used longitudinally and can separate out the steps in reasoning.

In conclusion, the brain never stops learning and repeated practice, rehearsal, rote learning combined with novelty are essential in learning.

Professor Swithenby was guest of honour at the Annual Branch Dinner which followed his lecture.  The photograph has Dr Mark Telling (Branch Chair) on the left and Prof. Swithenby on the right.