Can anyone be a maths genius?

1. The problem doesn't add up

How many times have you heard someone say “I can’t do maths”? Chances are you’ve said it yourself. According to the charity National Numeracy, around four in five adults in the UK have a low level of numeracy and 17 million adults in England are at roughly the same level as that expected of children in primary school.

Negative attitudes around maths are common but experts say they can actually be a lot more damaging than we realise. When a parent says to their child, “I was never any good at maths”, it can encourage their children to feel the same. Throwaway comments about maths can normalise negative attitudes.

While numeracy covers skills such as adding and multiplying, maths is about problem solving. If you got into work on time today, if you made a tea round for the office or if you’re deciding what to buy for lunch – that all takes lateral thinking. In other words: maths. The subject may have a bad press, but in fact we all use it all the time – and with a little work we can improve our skills.

2. Is there a maths gene?

In 2011 a study by John Hopkins University found that young children with a highly-developed ‘number sense’ – the ability to estimate numbers – were also better at maths tests. The researchers suggested this meant the ability to work with numbers may be something people are born with.

When Albert Einstein died in 1955 his brain was removed and preserved for future scientific study. Was this man’s brain the reason he was a genius?

In the following years numerous scientists have studied it, and while their results have sometimes been controversial many say Einstein’s brain was different to others’.

One recent study by scientists at Florida State University found that Einstein had “an extraordinary prefrontal cortex” which may have contributed to his abilities.

Annotated photograph of Albert Einstein's brain. Credit: National Museum of Health and Medicine.

3. Taking a deep breath...

Marcus du Sautoy explains how one of the biggest obstacles to being a maths genius is plain old fear!

4. Factoring the rest

Experts generally agree that nature and nurture both play a role when it comes to being good at maths. Environmental factors such as home life, schooling and even deprivation all influence our ability to succeed at the subject.

A study in Norway which tested the maths skills of 70 children found being good at the subject simply involves a lot of practice. And many experts warn discussions around a ‘maths gene’ miss the point that being good at maths takes effort.

Dr Toby Bailey, director of teaching at Edinburgh University’s School of Mathematics, thinks it is vital people in the UK drop the ‘fixed mindset’ of believing you are either good or bad at maths, and instead adopt a ‘growth mindset’ – often found in south east Asian countries – where people believe that by working at a subject their ability will improve.

He adds: “Young people at school often do not realise how central mathematics is to modern life. Medical scanners, mobile phones, Google's search results, airline scheduling, predicting global warming and a host of other things all involve high-level maths.”

Mike Ellicock from National Numeracy on how effort is more important than talent when it comes to maths.

5. Top tips for becoming better at maths

Marcus du Sautoy gives his best advice for becoming a maths whizz.

Learn more about this topic:

The Maths Show
Real Life Maths
The Code