For the many challenges imposed by autism spectrum disorder (ASD), those same brain differences can also make some tasks a little easier.
New research by an Italian psychologist provides evidence linking systematic thinking with mathematical ability, helping explain why individuals who have autism also tend to have a head for numbers.
Broadly speaking, our brains tend to have two different approaches to finding solutions to a dilemma – we identify impersonal relationships between categories and predict an outcome, or we use a variety of social functions to weigh in on a conclusion.
Systematic versus empathic tendencies each has their pros and cons, and we rarely apply them in isolation from the other. We often mix and match processes as we go through our day, reasoning and empathising to get by.
But individuals also have their preferences, both as a result of learned responses and thanks to distinct neurological pathways. Which implies some of us are better at solving certain kinds of problems than others.
The puzzle-solving aspects of mathematics typically demand more of that systematic kind of thinking. Or so you’d imagine.
It might come as a surprise, but while it’s easy to take for granted that people who have knack for systems also have an aptitude for mathematics, science just hasn’t backed it up.
University of Padova psychologist Paola Bressan noticed there was an absence of evidence on the topic, with the few studies that looked for a connection coming up empty-handed.
“This link appears to have been directly tested twice, with disappointing results in both cases,” she writes in her report.
Still curious – and a little skeptical of the current null position – Bressan recruited just over 200 university students and surveyed them individually on their self-reported maths skills, ability to systemise, and ability to solve problems using arithmetic.
The results matched what we might have expected. Students who did mathematical subjects – such as engineering and physics – tended to apply systematic thinking over empathic. For psychology students, this was reversed.
Similar to some previous studies, Bressan found women presented lower mathematics scores than men.