On the role of visual experience in mathematical development: Evidence from blind mathematicians.
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Developmental cognitive neuroscience, ISSN: 1878-9307
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Advanced mathematical reasoning, regardless of domain or difficulty, activates a reproducible set of bilateral brain areas including intraparietal, inferior temporal and dorsal prefrontal cortex. The respective roles of genetics, experience and education in the development of this math-responsive network, however, remain unresolved. Here, we investigate the role of visual experience by studying the exceptional case of three professional mathematicians who were blind from birth (n=1) or became blind during childhood (n=2). Subjects were scanned with fMRI while they judged the truth value of spoken mathematical and nonmathematical statements. Blind mathematicians activated the classical network of math-related areas during mathematical reflection, similar to that found in a group of sighted professional mathematicians. Thus, brain networks for advanced mathematical reasoning can develop in the absence of visual experience. Additional activations were found in occipital cortex, even in individuals who became blind during childhood, suggesting that either mental imagery or a more radical repurposing of visual cortex may occur in blind mathematicians.