Ms. Kimiko Kawano

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Image thinking of abacus users in higher dan (ranks) by a study on brain waves

Ms. Kimiko Kawano
Researcher, Nippon Medical School, Center for Informatics and Sciences.
July 14, 2000

We have been studying brain waves (EEG; electroencephalography) during various kinds of brain activities for more than ten years. In the beginning of the study, subjects were mainly students. We made them listen to music or calculate mathematical problems and than measured their EEGs to investigate the brain activity. After statistically analyzing the data obtained from over two hundred students, we have found the tendency that b waves, which indicate the active area of the brain, appeared on the right hemisphere while listening to music and on the left while calculating. This confirmed the hypothesis that the right brain is used to recognize images, figures and music and the left brain (the linguistic brain) to deal with logical thoughts, such as a calculation. At that time, we were asked from one TV program to measure the brain waves of an abacus champion. I thought, however, it would be difficult to prove some differences in the EEGs which involved quite large individual variances.

Neural activity in the right brain

When we measured the champion, a middle school student, during the mental calculation, the result was unexpected. Usually the left temporal region is used for calculation, but here, it was almost entirely unused. Instead, the b waves appeared on the right occipital region. In other words, the student carried out calculation using the right brain. I was not quite convinced from only one person’s result, because there are always exceptions and some individual differences in brain waves. However, we conducted the same investigation with another expert only to find the result almost identical to the previous case. We than asked more abacus users with high ‘dan’ (ranks) to let us measure their EEGs, and found almost the same results with only little individual variances. We inquired how they were calculating, and most of them gave the same reply that the image of the abacus beads in their head moved rapidly.

Usually, ordinary people calculate in their mind using inner voice, as in one hundred minus 7 is 93. They put mathematical notions into words. On the other hand, abacus users simply visualize an image of abacus in their head. They do not replace the image into words. This difference can be seen clearly in the EEGs. These tendencies in the brain uses can also be observed in professional players of Shogi, (Japanese chess,) while they are playing the games or solving Shogi problems. However, when they calculate, they use their left brains just as ordinary people do. This is the same with the abacus users. They do not use their right brains in all cases.

Verbal thinking and image processing

Usually, ordinary people calculate in their mind using inner voice, as in one hundred minus 7 is 93. They put mathematical notions into words. On the other hand, abacus users simply visualize an image of abacus in their head. They do not replace the image into words. This difference can be seen clearly in the EEGs. These tendencies in the brain uses can also be observed in professional players of Shogi, (Japanese chess,) while they are playing the games or solving Shogi problems. However, when they calculate, they use their left brains just as ordinary people do. This is the same with the abacus users. They do not use their right brains in all cases.

Yet it does not mean that abacus learning improves everything about the right brain, such as a sence of art and music. What is important is that the ability to visualize can be put to use for other subjects and behaviors. Some abacus experts use their ability for memorizing whole page of textbook or years in history. The abilily developed by abacas can be used effectively in different ways.

Not only for the experts but also for the beginners, abacus learning is useful to easily grasp images in addition and subtraction problems, because the beads are moving in front of their eyes. It also allows to understand the decimal system and the concept of digit positions. Once children understand numbers, they will probably become fond of mathematics. They will be more confident there may be many positive impacts in other subjects at school. The contemporary education focuses on theory and its rote memorization. Theory of course is important but many students cannot get an actual feeling of comprehension only through it. I believe an effective application of image thinking induces human creativity and inspiration.