Thursday, May 15, 2014

Math, Science and Other Learning Abilities: Hereditary or Acquired?

I was browsing my Facebook yesterday when a friend of mine posted about a math question she couldn't solve, and then she said something that I think a lot of us have heard of:

".....I dun(sic) have those maths brain (I believe it is genetically determined!)...."
Even I myself was once a victim of this concept of selective genes. I was constantly reminded of my limitation in maths by my parents, and that our family lacks the math gene, so it's perfectly fine for me to flunk the subjectuntil I was humiliated by my add-math teacher in class for failing so badly (to be fair to him, he was so mad because he had never seen a student getting a measly 6% for his test).
But I promptly returned the favour afterwards *.

It seems that a lot of us can accept that the colourful successes of humans can be determined by the action of a few genes it's as if we're letting fate to decide whether we're going to be good in math or in singing, and we'll never be able to break that curse.
True, studies have shown that the capacity to learn is indeed linked to certain genes. For mathematics, a team led by EL Meaburn from the King’s College London has published several articles relating the ability in mathematics to variations in DNA.

"The intricate involvement of these genes in development—especially the direct links of GRIK1 and DNAH5 to brain development—is indicative of the variety of genes one might expect to exert small effects over cognitive abilities such as mathematics."Docherty SJ et al.

As for language, scientists Dan Dediu and Robert Ladd of the University of Edinburgh in Scotland reported that some individuals possess variants of two genes involved in brain development that may make it easier for them to learn tonal languages like Chinese. Reader and Director of InLab at Goldsmiths College Dr Yulia Kovas wrote in her book that "...English, mathematics, and science yielded similarly high heritabilities and modest shared environmental influences at 7, 9, and 10 years....."
Okay, so we have a lot of studies telling us that you're stupid because your parents are stupid, and your kids will be as stupid as you are.
But wait.
If we take a closer look at these studies, we can see that even the authors of these studies warn against attributing completely complex human behavior such as learning to a few genes.
“Mathematical ability and disability are influenced by many genes generating small effects across the entire spectrum of ability,” Docherty SJ et al.

I'm a pragmatic person, and I believe that hereditary or not, it's all down to one's mindset: if you put enough effort towards achieving your goal, you can master the subject (of course it'll be significantly easier if you have the gene inside you). In fact, a study by Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck shows that

".... students with a “growth mind-set” — those who believe that intelligence is not fixed but is expandable through effort and practice — are more likely to keep trying when faced with a challenge, and ultimately more likely to succeed, than those who are convinced that intelligence is something you’re born with..." TIME
Image: www.sodancapassion.blogspot,com

So yes, you can be better than your parents by excelling in subjects deemed too difficult for you. It's hereditary, but you can acquire the skills despite not having the genes just make sure to put in sufficient effort and be positive all the time.

*Oh when I mentioned I promptly returned the favour above, I actually meant scoring a result he thought I could never score because he was so-freaking-I-swear-to-god certain that I would get an F for the subject in the public examination.

I got an A. Though I still make horribly rudimentary mistakes sometimes. Blame the genes?


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