Today, I would like to talk about the relationship between abacus-based mental arithmetic and brain science. We seek to learn about what abacus-based mental arithmetic is from the perspective of brain science, what changes abacus-based mental arithmetic practice can bring to us, and why it can cause changes in behavior and brain.

Like music training and physical exercise, the training and exercises of abacus-based mental arithmetic can result in behavioral changes. Obviously, all of you, as well as the parents, students and teachers, can intuitively realize that the calculation ability can be quickly improved through abacus-based mental arithmetic practices. So, in addition to improving the calculation ability, what other changes will abacus-based mental arithmetic training bring, especially long-term abacus-based mental arithmetic training?

First of all, we need to understand that mathematical abilities include but not just the calculation ability. It also includes more advanced mathematical visual-spatial logical reasoning capacity. We want to look at the effect of abacus-based mental arithmetic training on mathematical abilities and on other advanced cognitive abilities (Note: advanced cognitive abilities herein refer to the executive function). If abacus-based mental arithmetic training leads to changes in mathematical abilities and executive functions, we are more eager to know how and why these changes occur, and if our brains are changing at the same time? What kind of brain changes will be brought and why? Today, I want to make exchanges with you on these issues, hoping that by discussing these problems, some enlightenment can be provided to the teaching practice of abacus-based mental arithmetic.

To sum up, today I want to focus on two scientific issues:

First, the transfer ability of abacus-based mental arithmetic training. Abacus-based mental arithmetic practice is not only about the ability to calculate, but also about the effect of abacus-based mental arithmetic training on mathematical ability and executive function, that is, the transfer ability of abacus-based mental arithmetic training.

Second, plasticity of the brain. What kind of brain changes will be brought by long-term abacus-based mental arithmetic training and why?

As it involves some professional knowledge, I'll give you a little bit of background. Brain imaging will be used, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging, electroencephalography, which, among other lossless brain imaging techniques, can help us see what's happening inside our brain. What are brain activation, brain connectivity and brain structural changes I often talk about? We often use colors to indicate how active/engaged the brain is during an activity. The brighter the color, the more active/engaged the brain is and the stronger the activation.

When the brain is working, instead of only one part working, it is in the form of a network during any task. Several parts of the brain work together in a network. So when it comes to the brain network, we're talking about brain areas that work together in a network.

In addition to that, the brain structure, such as the brain’s white matter structures and fibers, plays a key role in supporting the brain and transmitting information, especially the information interaction between the left and right brain as well as the information transmission between the front and back of the brain.

Next, we will talk about some specific research work, with a focus on the effect of abacus-based mental arithmetic training on mathematical ability, on executive function, and on the brain mechanism.

I would like to start with the math ability. It is found in several of our studies that abacus-based mental arithmetic training can rapidly improve children's numeracy skills. The results of these studies are highly consistent. Abacus-based mental arithmetic training provides an avenue for rapidly improving the numeracy/computing power. According to a recent study, in a relatively short period of 2-3 months, the computing ability can also be significantly enhanced. Mathematical abilities include not only the calculation ability, but also the visual-spatial and logical reasoning ability. According to our study, through abacus-based mental arithmetic training, both children's numeracy skills and more advanced mathematical abilities, i.e., children's visuospatial and logical reasoning ability, can be improved. This conclusion may seem like simple, but it's a very important one, because mathematical abilities are quite significant for child development. Studies have shown that we can predict people’s future academic and career success according to children’s mathematical abilities in childhood. In other words, children with good math skills are more likely to have higher academic and professional success later in life.

Let's look at a specific experiment that is very simple. On a screen, there are two numbers varying in size, 3 and 8. Children are asked to do a very simple task of deciding which number is larger, or which shape is larger, between 3 and 8. This simple experiment is used to examine the effect of abacus-based mental arithmetic training on basic number processing capacity. Do you think abacus-based mental arithmetic training would affect the performance of such simple tasks? The result is very interesting, indicating that abacus-based mental arithmetic can also improve people’s ability to process numbers at such a low level. Through abacus-based mental arithmetic training, children's processing efficiency of number information can be enhanced, and their sensitivity to numbers and the development of number cognition can be improved. So what’s the significance and function of such ability improvement? The number processing ability is very important for improvement of children's mathematical ability and future development of their mathematical ability, meaning that if this ability is missing or weak, children’s development of mathematical abilities will be restricted. This study tells us that abacus-based mental arithmetic training can improve children’s calculation ability, advanced mathematical ability as well as the underlying number information processing ability.

In the above part, I have introduced the influence of abacus-based mental arithmetic training on children's mathematical cognition from the perspective of mathematical ability. Some might say it's easy to understand. In our frequent abacus-based mental arithmetic training, we focus more on mathematics, so our mathematical ability is greatly improved. So, in addition to improving children’s mathematical ability, does abacus-based mental arithmetic training have an effect on other cognitive abilities? This is the transfer ability we’ve talked about.

I will give more details on the transfer ability below. We focus on the effect of abacus-based mental arithmetic training on children’s executive function. Executive function is a psychological concept, meaning that we are able to quickly and effectively switch between tasks, resolve conflicts, develop plans, overcome distractions, and make decisions. In brief, executive function is our ability to solve problems. For example, the CPU performance of a computer can directly determine whether its function and performance is good or bad. In a sense, executive function is to us what a CPU is to a computer. As the core component of intelligence, its level is greatly correlated with IQ. Therefore, executive function is very important, with its level used to determine or predict people’s future life achievements.

With an aim to learn about if abacus-based mental arithmetic practice could affect and improve this important ability, we’ve conducted a series of studies. Here I would like to share some of our work with you.

I’ve just talked about the importance of executive function. Executive function can also be broken down, among which “working memory ability” is a very important component of executive function. In the second part, we will introduce the effect of abacus-based mental arithmetic training on executive function, especially on the working memory capacity. It’s found in several of our studies that abacus-based mental arithmetic training is conducive to rapidly improving children's working memory capability and memory capacity. Abacus-based mental arithmetic training can improve children's memory capacity. In daily teaching, teachers will find that children who participate in abacus-based mental arithmetic training will perform better in the memory of numbers and English words. Here, we have experimentally confirmed that abacus-based mental arithmetic training can greatly improve children's working memory capability.

We call the other component of executive function as “cognitive flexibility”. Then, what’s cognitive flexibility? Here is a task paradigm. A striped circle or a gray circle will appear on the screen. When the striped circle appears, press the button on the same side, and when the gray circle appears, press the button on the opposite side. The rule is very simple. If the striped circle alternates with the gray one, two rules must be memorized and children are asked to keep switching between them. This is a good test for children's cognitive flexibility, also known as the cognitive conversion ability. So does abacus-based mental arithmetic training have an effect on cognitive flexibility? Our task has nothing to do with abacus practice, without involving numbers or math. But our findings suggest that long-term abacus-based mental arithmetic practice can improve children's cognitive flexibility, which means that it has a transfer effect.

What we want to know more is, in case of behavioral change, are there any changes to the brain and what is the brain mechanism? Here is a simple example. This is the brain activation figure, where the colors represent the activity of the brain when the child is completing the striped/gray circle judgment task. Look here, these are the brain areas that are activated.

The better the average child performs these tasks (the better the behavioral performance is), the higher the level of brain activity and activation in these areas is. What does this imply? When they are doing these tasks, the more effort they have to put in, the better they get. In other words, the brain needs more neurons and more resources. Only when more resources are input can this task be better accomplished. It's easy to understand that the more effort I put in, the better I do.

But if you look at the figure above, for children who practice abacus-based mental arithmetic, the paradigm of their brain activity has changed. Children who complete the task better and perform better have lower levels of brain activity, why? This suggests that, when completing the same task, fewer resources are needed. The better those kids do, the fewer resources they need, which means the more efficient their brains are. In this sense, the abacus-based mental arithmetic training improves the efficiency of brain activity.

When examined from the perspective of function, it is found that abacus-based mental arithmetic training can enhance the efficiency of neural activity. So does such training affect the structure of the brain? We'll see if white matter fibers in the brain we just talked about have any effect on the brain structure and on the network of the brain. To this end, we have done much work, all of which have a consistent conclusion, that’s, long-term abacus-based mental arithmetic training may affect a child's brain structure. For children in the abacus and mental arithmetic group compared with those in the control group, the white matter fibers are more consistent.

Taking the expressway as an example, there are both expressways and national highways from Hangzhou to Beijing. The former has a large flow and high efficiency, while the latter has much lower efficiency. High consistency of the white matter fibers indicates that this brain area is like a highway hospital, where the white matters are neatly arranged and the information is transmitted efficiently.

According to this study, after long-term abacus-based mental arithmetic training, the white matter fibers in the brain are subject to changes, including the areas that connect the left and right sides of the brain as well as the areas associated with finger movement, visual movement and visual imagination. We think that these changes are related to special operations of daily abacus-based mental arithmetic training, including cooperative operation with left and right hand that promotes the information processing interaction between the left brain and the right brain; by imagining the movement of the beads for manipulation of mental imagery, the consistency of white matter fibers in brain areas associated with visual motor/visual image processing can be improved. It's worth noting that long-term abacus-based mental arithmetic practice affects the structural changes in children's brains that will not occur with short-term training.

Then we examine the effect of abacus-based mental arithmetic exercise on brain network from the perspective of network. A consistent conclusion has been made from several studies, that’s, abacus-based mental arithmetic training can improve network efficiency. Research has shown that the higher the mathematical ability of children, the more efficient some of their brain areas are. There is a good correlation between mathematical ability and abacus-based mental arithmetic ability. In other words, the better the children perform in abacus-based mental arithmetic practice, the more efficient some of their brain areas may be, which is consistent with the conclusion of our research related to the function above.

We also discuss the effect of abacus-based mental arithmetic training on children’s brain network from the perspective of brain network. We have, according to the level of abacus-based mental arithmetic, divided the children who learn abacus-based mental arithmetic into a high-level group and a low-level group, with ordinary children as the control group. There is a very big difference in the mathematical ability of these three groups of children. So, do they behave differently at the level of brain networks? I will start with the concept of “similarity”. How do we understand “intra-group similarity”? For example, the difference between ordinary people and athletes is great. In the 800m race, the athletes run very fast, the difference between the athletes is very small, maybe a few tenths of a second, indicating that the “intra-group similarity” between groups of athletes is high. Some ordinary people run fast and others run slowly, with a great difference between individuals, indicating that the “intra-group similarity” of ordinary people is very low. In terms of intra-group similarity in the brain, we found that there were significant differences between the high-level group, the low-level group and the control group. The intra-group similarity of the high-level abacus-based mental arithmetic group was significantly better than that of the low-level group, which was significantly better than that of the control group. This suggests that long-term abacus-based mental arithmetic training has improved the intra-group similarity of the modular networks of the brain to some extent.

That is to say, to some extent, long-term abacus-based mental arithmetic training drives the brain to develop under a better and more efficient organization pattern, which improves the similarity between individuals. The better the training performance of children, the higher the similarity of their brain networks. This may because long-term practice can inhibit irrelevant neuronal activity and improve functional differentiation.

At last, we will make a brief summary. As shown in our research, abacus-based mental arithmetic training can quickly improve children's calculation ability, while long-term training can upgrade children's mathematical skills, including mathematical visual-spatial and logical reasoning skills. Please note that the word “fast” is used when the calculation ability is improved, while the expression “long-term training” is often used when other abilities are improved. This indicates that it takes time for abacus-based mental arithmetic training to have a transfer effect.

Abacus-based mental arithmetic training can facilitate the development of children's mathematical ability and cognitive ability (executive function), especially the ability of working memory and cognitive conversion.

Based on our observation, abacus-based mental arithmetic training has a significant impact on children’s brain function, brain structure and brain network pattern, and lifts the processing efficiency of children's brains.

What are the implications of these behavioral and brain changes for us? I don't know if you've noticed that one of the points that I emphasized in my talk is “long-term training”. Long-term training will have a transfer effect and bring some changes to the brain function, structure and network. Abacus-based mental arithmetic exercises can affect children’s mathematical ability and cognitive ability. Instead of happening right away, such impact takes time to accumulate. One more thing to stress is that long-term abacus-based mental arithmetic training may generate a transfer effect and affect brain plasticity, which is related to the characteristics of abacus-based mental arithmetic. Cooperative operation of both hands in abacus-based mental arithmetic training is beneficial to information interaction of the brain; rapid information update, emphasis on imagination and visual space operation are conducive to development of transfer ability.

I hope our research can give some enlightenment to those who engage in the teaching practice of abacus-based mental arithmetic.

Thank you.

(Ms. Chen Feiyan is a professor of Zhejiang University. This is her speech at the International Academic Seminar on Commemoration of the 20th Anniversary of the Founding of WAAMA (The 7th Abacus and Mental Arithmetic Education Academic Exchange Seminar) on October 28th, 2022)