More education leads to more wealth, longer life, and better health. While we explored some of the reasons for those positive effects of education in “Is All Education Meaningful?” and why education leads to better lives, there is a recent, fascinating study that sheds additional light on causal reasons why education — in this case Mathematics education — leads to those advantages. Mathematics changes the biology of a person’s brain — for the better.
In the Oxford study, researchers investigated whether continuing or ceasing Mathematics classes changes the brain on a biological level. The magnitude of what they found surprised me. The results were unambiguous: There was such a clear difference between the brains of students who continued versus discontinued Mathematics in high school that researchers could tell just from looking at the students’ brains whether they continued to take Mathematics or not. And, prior to continuing versus discontinuing Mathematics in high school, there was no observable difference between the brains of those students.
The specific biological change the researchers measured was the amount of gamma-Aminobutyric acid, a necessary chemical for brain plasticity, in a region of the brain involved in reasoning, problem solving, Mathematics, memory, and learning.
Should We Care?
I would say “yes.” And here’s why: I complained (a lot) about learning “meaningless” Math in school. I, like most students, frequented the common refrain: “When will I ever use this?” No one was ever able to give me an answer. Now that I have learned more, however, I think the best answer is: “You don’t know whether or not you will use this, and, whether or not you directly use it, you are guaranteed to benefit from it.”
You don’t know what you don’t know:
When you have the necessary knowledge to solve a problem, you can use that knowledge. But, often when you don’t have the necessary knowledge, you don’t even know if you are missing knowledge or how or why it would be helpful if you had it. A frivolous but nonetheless useful example in my own life was using research, art, mathematics, and chemistry when purchasing and setting up a firepit. A much less frivolous example: if you are going to understand your home mortgage, investments, loans, and personal finance (all things that can have dramatic impacts on your and your future generations’ material well-being), Mathematical intuition, knowledge, and skills are tremendously helpful. So, while it is probably mostly true that you will not directly use most of what you learn, you cannot know in advance what knowledge you will directly use. If you’re going into battle (and life is quite a battle), I would rather risk over rather than underpreparing to succeed. Thus, much better to learn more and learn what you might not need, than to risk not learning what you will need.
Everything you learn will help you, even if indirectly:
As this study and others have shown, education changes not only the function of the brain but also its biology as well. Thus, if you are learning something you feel like you will never directly use, take comfort in the fact that learning it is helping to change your brain’s functional and physical abilities. I can’t promise you that you will use Matrices that you learned in school in real life, but I can promise you that learning Matrices that you don’t use will help you with all the learning, knowledge, and cognitive abilities that you do use. You can do leg workouts, but leg workouts don’t just help the legs: they help the heart and the lungs, lower the risk of cancer, lower cholesterol, help people manage weight, decrease risks of diabetes, help blood pressure, etc, etc, etc. (Betterhealth). In the same way, if you help one part of your brain, you help the rest of it as well. Everything you learn helps you.
If you want to live longer in greater happiness, health, and wealth, then invest in education. Even when evaluated as an investment asset (risk and reward), education is one of — if not the best — investment that someone can make. It changes not only how your brain functions, but it literally, physically changes you and allows you to hit a new, higher potential.