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Can anyone learn advanced maths? (Researches)

  • #1

Main Question or Discussion Point

Hello guys,

I often ask myself if anyone can learn maths to an advanced level? And get really good on it.
I think that every healthy person can get very good at maths. The only condition is that the person is interested in math.
Of course, to get on the level of a Field-Medal winner you have to be blessed a little bit. But I think you can reach and understand a lot just by working out hard.

But are there researches which proof the current state of science in relation to how much the genetic predisposition affects the learning of math?
When you are healthy our neural system should work nearly the same as the neural system of a high-level mathematician or nah?


What do you guys think? Can anyone learn maths to a high level?
Or is it important to be 'blessed'? Or do you think it is pretty irrelevant and only relevant for the level of Field-Medal member?

I am really sorry for the grammatic issues. I am still improving my English!
 

Answers and Replies

  • #2
Drakkith
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But are there researches which proof the current state of science in relation to how much the genetic predisposition affects the learning of math?
There is no clear evidence linking genetic differences with mathematical skill except in the case of mutations that result in mental disabilities. Basically, if someone's abilities are anywhere near average or above, we can't really tell who would be good at math just by looking at their genes.

When you are healthy our neural system should work nearly the same as the neural system of a high-level mathematician or nah?
That depends on how you're measuring and comparing things. The large-scale structure of each person's brain is nearly identical, but if you were to map out each individual cell and synapse there would be enormous differences. You can think of the brain as being composed of 'modules', each consisting of some number of neurons and their synapses and each performing certain processing tasks. To be clear, I don't mean that these cells are isolated from other cells in nearby 'modules', I only mean that they function together as a unit to perform some task. These modules can even overlap each other, with cells belonging to more than one module (as far as I know). The exact position of each cell and the exact layout of their synapses is not particularly important as long as the modules all connect together the right way.

The reason I bring this up is to demonstrate that there is more than one way to describe how closely the brains of two people match. They may be very different at the level of cells and synapses, but they may be nearly identical if you look at them at the scale of 'modules'. So if you want to look at what effects genetic differences have on someone's brain, you have to start building abstract models of the brain at various complexity levels, greatly complicating the analysis.

What do you guys think? Can anyone learn maths to a high level?
No, I don't think so. Understanding math at a level that puts you within reach of a Field's Medal takes extraordinary talent that most people do not possess. You really have to understand math at a level comparable to the physical skill requirements needed to play a professional sport. Only a small percentage of people have the ability to reach these high levels of physical or mathematical skill in my opinion.
 
  • #3
FactChecker
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A couple of data points:
1) Where I went, there were people who anyone would consider smart, but who could never get passed the preliminary exams for acceptance to the Ph.D. program. Some of them worked at it for many years.
2) I had no trouble with some advanced math subjects, but could never get good at others. I eventually had to switch from abstract algebra as a specialty to complex analysis (geometric function theory). If it wasn't for the geometric aspect, I probably would have nothing.
 
  • #4
Math_QED
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I think it is false that everyone can learn advanced abstract maths. The first requirement is to be very patient when doing maths. It can take a long time to truly understand concepts. Since not everyone can/wants to spend a lot of time doing math, not everyone can become good at it.

The second thing I can come up with is the abstraction level. I know a couple of people that said that at some point, they hit a certain "abstraction level". Things became too abstract and/or too technical.

I hope I'll never reach such an abstraction level.
 
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  • #6
First of all thanks for your answers.

That depends on how you're measuring and comparing things. The large-scale structure of each person's brain is nearly identical, but if you were to map out each individual cell and synapse there would be enormous differences. You can think of the brain as being composed of 'modules', each consisting of some number of neurons and their synapses and each performing certain processing tasks. To be clear, I don't mean that these cells are isolated from other cells in nearby 'modules', I only mean that they function together as a unit to perform some task. These modules can even overlap each other, with cells belonging to more than one module (as far as I know). The exact position of each cell and the exact layout of their synapses is not particularly important as long as the modules all connect together the right way.
That is a very good point! Since I don't know that much about the cellular level about the brain that is a really good point to think about. I like your comparison with the large scale and the individual cell.

No, I don't think so. Understanding math at a level that puts you within reach of a Field's Medal takes extraordinary talent that most people do not possess. You really have to understand math at a level comparable to the physical skill requirements needed to play a professional sport. Only a small percentage of people have the ability to reach these high levels of physical or mathematical skill in my opinion.
On a high level, I mean the level like when you study maths in university. That you need some kind of talent to get a Field-Medal or even compete it is obvious. That is not what I meant with high level. High level is university level for me.

2) I had no trouble with some advanced math subjects, but could never get good at others. I eventually had to switch from abstract algebra as a specialty to complex analysis (geometric function theory). If it wasn't for the geometric aspect, I probably would have nothing.
But did you put the same effort into abstract algebra like in your successful math subjects? Or were you less interested in abstract algebra so subconscious you have put less effort into it?
But on the other hand, I feel you. I don't like stochastics that much and for me, it seems harder sometimes to learn stochastic than analysis or others. But I also know that I subconscious put less effort into stochastic to learn it because it interessts me less than analysis for example.

I think it is false that everyone can learn advanced abstract maths. The first requirement is to be very patient when doing maths. It can take a long time to truly understand concepts. Since not everyone can/wants to spend a lot of time doing math, not everyone can become good at it.
I get your point and I am with you but that is what I said at the beginning. The only condition is that you have to like maths or want to learn it otherwise you will never put enough effort into it that's true.
But the point you are talking about is not a genetic factor. It is more a psychological thing you know what I mean?
Your point is right. Not everyone wants to learn math to an abstract level or so but I talk about people who want it and who are interested in math.
 
  • #7
Nobody is surprised that career in music requires a talent. Why it should not be so in math
Yes of course but I think that people who play an instrument and start a career on that are comparable to mathematicians who compete for the Field-Medal.
That's a level where you need to be talented, yes. But I think everyone can also learn an instrument like a piano to a good degree but of course not to a pro level like Mozart.
 
  • #8
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Yes of course but I think that people who play an instrument and start a career on that are comparable to mathematicians who compete for the Field-Medal.
That's a level where you need to be talented, yes. But I think everyone can also learn an instrument like a piano to a good degree but of course not to a pro level like Mozart.
Most mathematicians aren't as good at math as a Terrance Tao just like most physicists aren't as good at physics as an Ed Witten, at a certain level all you need is to meet the standard and move on from there; barring some sort of mental illness I think most people can meet the average (though it might not hold their interest to do so as this still requires lots of work) but the average is still kind of wide since there's so many sub-fields within math.
 
  • #9
StatGuy2000
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No, I don't think so. Understanding math at a level that puts you within reach of a Field's Medal takes extraordinary talent that most people do not possess. You really have to understand math at a level comparable to the physical skill requirements needed to play a professional sport. Only a small percentage of people have the ability to reach these high levels of physical or mathematical skill in my opinion.
I disagree with that characterization, and the comparison between advanced mathematics and professional sports is a false one. To have the physical skill requirements to play a professional sport involves a combination of specific physical attributes (typically genetic attributes -- height, ability to develop certain musculature, excellent hand-eye coordination, among others) along with years of physical training.

Short of having a mental disability, there is no bar mentally to studying mathematics. To accomplish and understand the mathematics needed to achieve a Fields Medal will indeed involve years of dedication and research, but I actually do believe that the foundations to achieve an understanding of mathematics is accessible to most people. The small percentage you talk about has little to do with ability, but a lot to do with dedication and training.
 
  • #10
PeroK
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I disagree with that characterization, and the comparison between advanced mathematics and professional sports is a false one. To have the physical skill requirements to play a professional sport involves a combination of specific physical attributes (typically genetic attributes -- height, ability to develop certain musculature, excellent hand-eye coordination, among others) along with years of physical training.

Short of having a mental disability, there is no bar mentally to studying mathematics. To accomplish and understand the mathematics needed to achieve a Fields Medal will indeed involve years of dedication and research, but I actually do believe that the foundations to achieve an understanding of mathematics is accessible to most people. The small percentage you talk about has little to do with ability, but a lot to do with dedication and training.
Do you have any research to substantiate these claims?

It is possible, without evidence, to make precisely the opposite claim: that with enough training a physical skill will develop to any desired level; but, if you just can't grasp the mathematics, then no amount of study will change your brain sufficiently.
 
  • #11
PeroK
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Short of having a mental disability, there is no bar mentally to studying mathematics.
PS although I submit this without evidence, it seems illogical to me that there are a) people with mental disabilities and b) everyone else. It seems more logical to me that there is a spectrum, from those with no capability to learn advanced mathematics to those for whom advanced mathematics can be learned relatively easily.
 
  • #12
987
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Do you have any research to substantiate these claims?

It is possible, without evidence, to make precisely the opposite claim: that with enough training a physical skill will develop to any desired level.
That physically is not true though, it doesn't matter how much someone trains, most people aren't going to look like this due to genetics and drugs:

Mr.-Olympia-2018-Predictions.jpg
 

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  • #13
StatGuy2000
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Do you have any research to substantiate these claims?

It is possible, without evidence, to make precisely the opposite claim: that with enough training a physical skill will develop to any desired level; but, if you just can't grasp the mathematics, then no amount of study will change your brain sufficiently.
If you are asking me whether I have specific evidence to pinpoint this, the answer is no. In fact, there is a surprising paucity of research in regards to the heritability of mathematical ability, in large part because of the questions involving defining what is "innate" versus "acquired" mathematical ability.

Please note that I have never questioned that certain individuals have an easier time grasping numerical or abstract mathematical concepts than others, and other individuals may take longer in acquiring these concepts. That does not imply that mathematics is therefore completely inaccessible to those who initially struggle or that somehow certain people are genetically incapable of math. If anything, this only points that different individuals will require different teaching techniques to learn certain subjects.
 
  • #14
StatGuy2000
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That physically is not true though, it doesn't matter how much someone trains, most people aren't going to look like this due to genetics and drugs:

View attachment 231914
The question would be -- what if you take certain people and have them undergo extremely grueling and arduous physical training regimen (as well as use certain performance-enhancing drugs like anabolic steroids or human growth hormones). Could they, in the end, have physiques that would approximate the bodybuilders you just displayed in the attached photo?
 
  • #15
987
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The question would be -- what if you take certain people and have them undergo extremely grueling and arduous physical training regimen (as well as use certain performance-enhancing drugs like anabolic steroids or human growth hormones). Could they, in the end, have physiques that would approximate the bodybuilders you just displayed in the attached photo?
They might start to approximate that, but the ones I posted are the top placings at this year's Mr. Olympia (basically the world championships of professional bodybuilding), there's things that set them apart from the rest of the field that can't necessarily be replicated by training (luck of judging preferences is also a factor, which goes to muscle insertion points and such which are set genetically).
 
  • #16
Drakkith
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I disagree with that characterization, and the comparison between advanced mathematics and professional sports is a false one. To have the physical skill requirements to play a professional sport involves a combination of specific physical attributes (typically genetic attributes -- height, ability to develop certain musculature, excellent hand-eye coordination, among others) along with years of physical training.
And learning math requires a combination of several mental skills including memory, the ability to abstract, logic, and more. Not everyone is good enough at all of these skills to be successful in math.

Short of having a mental disability, there is no bar mentally to studying mathematics. To accomplish and understand the mathematics needed to achieve a Fields Medal will indeed involve years of dedication and research, but I actually do believe that the foundations to achieve an understanding of mathematics is accessible to most people. The small percentage you talk about has little to do with ability, but a lot to do with dedication and training.
I just don't agree.
 
  • #17
So there are basically 2 opinions here.

I get the arguments from both sides but does anyone has a research or some scientific proof?
But we all agree that there are people who have an easier time learning math than other people.
And even tho I think that every healthy person without a learning disability can learn math I think that you can not achieve the level of a Field-Medal mathematician.

I am also not 100% sure if you can compare pro sports with learning math. I get the idea but I don't think you can compare this too exactly.
Every pro player uses some kind of steroids no matter if it is bodybuilding, football, soccer etc.
And I think the pro mathematician do not take something to boost their brain.

I would like to know if there is a research or something else at the moment which shows if our neurons work that much different in comparison to a high-level mathematician.
Or if there is just a little difference, which only matters in extremely high-level maths and that is the reason why we won't be that good like Terence Tao for example.
 
  • #18
StatGuy2000
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And learning math requires a combination of several mental skills including memory, the ability to abstract, logic, and more. Not everyone is good enough at all of these skills to be successful in math.
But my contention is that each of the mental skills you listed (memory, ability to abstract, logic, etc.) are acquired abilities, and which require practice and effort to master. Sure, some people have an easier time with these skills than others, but I have thus far seen no convincing evidence that, barring actual physical disability, that these mental skills are beyond the reach of all students.

Also, ask yourself this -- if a student is struggling with math, your first reaction seems to me that the student is not "genetically" capable of math. Isn't it just as likely that the student have had poor teachers?

I just don't agree.
And I disagree with your disagreement.

Consider this -- it has been widely reported that students in Asian countries like Japan, Singapore, South Korea outperform American and Canadian students in standardized math scores and in math overall. Some people might conclude that people from these Asian countries have a genetic propensity for mathematical ability. I reject this outright -- a combination of cultural values that emphasize that any subject is accessible to all students, better teachers, better support for teachers, better educational materials are the most likely explanations for the superior performance.
 
  • #19
Drakkith
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I get the arguments from both sides but does anyone has a research or some scientific proof?
I can't say that I do.

But my contention is that each of the mental skills you listed (memory, ability to abstract, logic, etc.) are acquired abilities, and which require practice and effort to master. Sure, some people have an easier time with these skills than others, but I have thus far seen no convincing evidence that, barring actual physical disability, that these mental skills are beyond the reach of all students.
I don't agree that they are purely acquired abilities. I myself have significant memory problems and while I haven't been labeled as having a mental disability, it absolutely affects my ability to learn math (like trying to remember those dang integration tables! :mad:). How can I learn advanced mathematics if I have difficulty remembering all the new rules, tricks, and techniques required at those levels?

Also, ask yourself this -- if a student is struggling with math, your first reaction seems to me that the student is not "genetically" capable of math. Isn't it just as likely that the student have had poor teachers?
I don't deal with people at the advanced level, so I don't immediately jump to the conclusion that they just aren't cut out for it.

Consider this -- it has been widely reported that students in Asian countries like Japan, Singapore, South Korea outperform American and Canadian students in standardized math scores and in math overall. Some people might conclude that people from these Asian countries have a genetic propensity for mathematical ability. I reject this outright -- a combination of cultural values that emphasize that any subject is accessible to all students, better teachers, better support for teachers, better educational materials are the most likely explanations for the superior performance.
These studies are not looking at the highest level of mathematical ability, but the lower levels.
 
  • #20
PeroK
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Consider this -- it has been widely reported that students in Asian countries like Japan, Singapore, South Korea outperform American and Canadian students in standardized math scores and in math overall. Some people might conclude that people from these Asian countries have a genetic propensity for mathematical ability. I reject this outright -- a combination of cultural values that emphasize that any subject is accessible to all students, better teachers, better support for teachers, better educational materials are the most likely explanations for the superior performance.
That's actually more of a "political" analysis, teetering on a false syllogism, than a scientific one.

Hypothesis: not everyone can learn advanced maths.

Refutation: in Asian countries people are generally better at maths owing to a more focused education system.

That is false logic.

In fact, to prove your point you would need to demonstrate that almost no one in these Asian countries struggles with maths. Or, alternatively, that almost everyone eventually attains the ability to study maths successfully at undergraduate level, say,
 
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  • #21
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A big bunch of arguments, but the truth is not clear. Strong personal interest, strong personal effort, cultural and community support help very much.
 
  • #22
We can go back to high school. There are pupils who just understand maths immediately, as soon as the teacher presents the material. And there are others, like the one I tutored today, who do not, who even have to spend a lot of money on extra tutorship and still get average grades or worse.

There is a clear innate ability involved here. Call it talent, call it intelligence. There are gaps you cannot cross with hard work alone.
 
  • #23
StatGuy2000
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We can go back to high school. There are pupils who just understand maths immediately, as soon as the teacher presents the material. And there are others, like the one I tutored today, who do not, who even have to spend a lot of money on extra tutorship and still get average grades or worse.

There is a clear innate ability involved here. Call it talent, call it intelligence. There are gaps you cannot cross with hard work alone.
First of all, I never claimed that certain people do not understand math more easily than others (if you want to call that innate ability or talent, sure go right ahead). It's also worth keeping in mind that the understanding of mathematics is cumulative, so those who may not have learned the fundamentals at an early stage will have more difficulty in later years (all arguments for ensuring students receive the highest quality of math instruction and education at the earliest years).

That does not mean that (a) earlier obstacles cannot be overcome, nor (b) not everyone is capable to learn or develop an understanding of mathematics.

Again, there is a commonly-held view throughout Western countries (particularly by Americans and the British) that somehow mathematical ability is a "genetic" trait that only a certain people are blessed with the capability to understand. In no other subject that I can think of is such a view held -- not in, say, foreign languages, not in geography, history, art, music, etc. This is a view that I categorically reject -- mathematics is no different than any of these subjects. As I have stated earlier and in other threads, the default assumption in many Asian countries is that all students are capable of learning mathematics (including advanced mathematics, however you wish to define "advanced") with good teaching and strong effort on the part of the students involved.
 
  • #24
First of all, I never claimed that certain people do not understand math more easily than others (if you want to call that innate ability or talent, sure go right ahead). It's also worth keeping in mind that the understanding of mathematics is cumulative, so those who may not have learned the fundamentals at an early stage will have more difficulty in later years (all arguments for ensuring students receive the highest quality of math instruction and education at the earliest years).

That does not mean that (a) earlier obstacles cannot be overcome, nor (b) not everyone is capable to learn or develop an understanding of mathematics.

Again, there is a commonly-held view throughout Western countries (particularly by Americans and the British) that somehow mathematical ability is a "genetic" trait that only a certain people are blessed with the capability to understand. In no other subject that I can think of is such a view held -- not in, say, foreign languages, not in geography, history, art, music, etc. This is a view that I categorically reject -- mathematics is no different than any of these subjects. As I have stated earlier and in other threads, the default assumption in many Asian countries is that all students are capable of learning mathematics (including advanced mathematics, however you wish to define "advanced") with good teaching and strong effort on the part of the students involved.
It's not only genetics, it is genetics + childhood developement. That's how "talent" is formed. If a less talented person could go back in time and change the input it got as a child, he could improve his innate ability. But otherwise...
Also, since you yourself agree that "some people understand math more easily" it is straight logic that some people will never understand it to the point where they can learn advanced mathematics on their own. Talent is a continuous spectrum. There are people who can reach the level of university maths easily. Then there are the ones who need much more time to do so. And then there are the ones who will never do it.
Just because some Asian countries have better education systems so that the average pupil will be better at maths than in other countries does not imply that anyone could get good at math.
 
  • #25
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It's not only genetics, it is genetics + childhood developement. That's how "talent" is formed. If a less talented person could go back in time and change the input it got as a child, he could improve his innate ability. But otherwise...
Also, since you yourself agree that "some people understand math more easily" it is straight logic that some people will never understand it to the point where they can learn advanced mathematics on their own. Talent is a continuous spectrum. There are people who can reach the level of university maths easily. Then there are the ones who need much more time to do so. And then there are the ones who will never do it.
Just because some Asian countries have better education systems so that the average pupil will be better at maths than in other countries does not imply that anyone could get good at math.
Defaulting to logic can be faulty, this is an example of 'straight' logic:

George Washington is a dog
All dogs go to heaven when they die
George Washington is dead
Therefore he is in heaven

This is logically valid since it follows structure, it isn't sound because George Washington was not a dog (doesn't map to reality, not to mention facts like not knowing whether heaven is real or not).

It depends on what you mean by 'good' at math, if by that you mean Fields Medal, than even most mathematicians will never get there.

If by 'good' you mean about the average at an average state university in the US, that's much more tenable, especially if you lax the requirement to 'only' be the basics needed for a major that 'only' uses applied math like engineering or physics.
 

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