A head for numbers?

Advancements in neuroimaging are getting us closer to understanding how much of our strengths and abilities are innate, and whether or not there is an “accounting brain.”

Paul Foster has done a lot of thinking about the brain — how it works, the difference between the conscious and unconscious and what his natural cognitive abilities are. The trigger for the CPA’s interest in brain science: a course he took in 2007 to help build the advisory side of his tax practice. The education system had pegged him as an analytical or left-brain thinker ideally suited for a career in accounting. So he spent almost 20 years preparing income tax and financial statements for small-business owners and farmers in his hometown of Essex, Ont.

That all changed when he took the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument thinking-style assessment. The test was created by the late Ned Herrmann, a physicist who pioneered the study of the brain in the field of business while working as manager of General Electric’s management education at Crotonville, NY. He theorized there are four quadrants in the brain, each representing a specialized cluster of mental activities. Different people prefer different types of thinking, but we can all tap into each quadrant to maximize performance.

“I was left-brain trained in the education system but in my mid-40s I found out my core mind-set is more naturally a right-brained, creative thinker,” says Foster. “It dawned on me, that’s why I hated the tax and accounting work and enjoyed working with clients to help them make more money. The assessment allowed me to see I was not naturally inclined to the detailed nature of the profession. I was the opposite.” With that revelation, in 2011 he transitioned out of the “numbers” business and launched The Business Therapist to focus on teaching entrepreneurs how to start and grow their businesses. He hasn’t looked back.

IS THERE SUCH A THING AS A BRAIN TYPE?

Is there such a thing as an accounting brain? Or a doctor’s brain? Or any type of brain? Do some people have neuropathways that are more developed and so better suited for a given function? Or does life experience and environment carry more weight than biology? And what would you do if you knew one way or another? Advancements in neuroimaging are providing a window into the brain that we’ve never had before and getting us closer to understanding how it works and why we act the way we do.

This research is being popularized in a number of best-selling books, such as We Are Our Brains: A Neurobiography of the Brain, from the Womb to Alzheimer’s by D.F. Swaab and You Are Not Your Brain: The 4-Step Solution for Changing Bad Habits, Ending Unhealthy Thinking, and Taking Control of Your Life by Jeffrey Schwartz and Rebecca Gladding. These two titles clearly shine the light on the divide in the brain science community.

On the one hand, Swaab and like-minded neuroscientists such as David Eagleman, author of Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, and V.S. Ramachandran, who penned The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human, argue the brain’s machinery is essentially hardwired from birth and doesn’t allow much room to manoeuvre. The conscious brain plays little or no role in our decision-making.

Eagleman sums it up this way: the brain is three pounds of neurons and glia. A typical neuron makes about 10,000 connections to neighbouring neurons. These billions of neurons operate their own programs. The result: “Most of what we do and think and feel is not under our conscious control. In fact, the conscious you is the smallest bit of what’s transpiring in your brain,” he writes. Swaab extends the power of the subconscious brain well beyond our capabilities and how we function to our moral choices, which he says are limited. This view is referred to as neuro-Calvinism, reflecting the doctrine of predestination espoused by the Protestant theological system of John Calvin.

Posing a direct rebuttal to the my-brain-made-me-do-it argument are Schwartz and Gladding, as well as Norman Doidge, author of The Brain That Changes Itself and The Brain’s Way of Healing, who are proponents of a new science, neuroplasticity. They make the case that far from being fixed, the brain can rewire and repair itself through conscious thought and action. Doidge, a psychiatrist on the faculties of both the University of Toronto and Columbia University in New York, goes so far as to say the brain can change its own structure to compensate for even the most challenging neurological conditions, including strokes, Parkinson’s disease and learning disorders.

A BREAKTHROUGH DISCOVERY

Brain science is entering the age-old philosophical determinism versus free will debate, thanks to advances in brain mapping technology such as positron emission tomography (PET) scans, electroencephalography (EEG) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). A real breakthrough in human neuroscience came in the 1990s with the discovery that functional MRI could be used to not only look at the structure of the brain, which was commonplace at that point, but to see how a healthy human brain works.

“The key discovery here was when a brain area becomes activated there is a demand for more blood, which delivers oxygen and nutrients and glucose, allowing that region to function optimally,” says Daniel Ansari, Canada Research Chair in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience and director of the Numerical Cognition Lab within the department of psychology at Western University in London, Ont. “When you get an increase in blood flow you get more oxygenated hemoglobin, which leads to an increase in the MR signal. The more an area is activated, the higher the regional flow of blood. Since then the field of neuroscience has exploded.”

Brain scans of London taxi drivers, for example, show more gray matter at the back of the hippocampus, a part of the brain important to spatial memory. While no similar studies of accountants’ brains have been undertaken, we do know there is a part of the brain responsible for number processing and economic decision-making: the parietal cortex, near the centre of the brain. This region is activated when people compare numbers, add and subtract and problem solve. “When you manipulate financial information in the context of making economic decisions you also see the engagement of this brain region across both hemispheres. Is it larger in accountants? We don’t know,” says Ansari.

We also don’t know whether taxi drivers are born with large hippocampi or if it’s the result of learning so many driving routes. Ansari is willing to bet it’s a combination of the two. “Anything you do for a protracted amount of time will have an effect on your neural architecture. Studies that explore juggling, which involves complex vision and motor skills, show that when you learn, certain parts of the brain will increase,” he says. “People who are experts in identification — birders, for example — will have slightly different brains compared to non-birders because they are using the areas involved in representing and discriminating between different creatures more so than non-experts.” While he can’t say for sure, Ansari believes researchers would find a correlation between expertise in accounting and the activation or volume of certain brain regions.

That correlation is the result of the brain’s plasticity, which Ansari defines as the mechanism of adaptation. Put simply, plasticity is what allows the brain to adapt to the unique social, cultural and environmental situations it finds itself in. If you’re an accountant and spend a lot of time manipulating numbers, that action will strengthen the neuro-pathways that serve that behaviour. Translation: the more you do something, the better you get at it because the brain adapts.

While there is pretty good evidence that brain structure and function relate to human performance in general, there is also individual variation in any area, from motor performance — how well coordinated people are, how fast they can respond — to much more complicated things such as personality and other aspects of behaviour. Differences in the brain, either in the thickness of parts of the cortex or the degree to which areas are wired together, can be seen based on each person’s specific abilities. “They are subtle variations,” says Lesley Fellows, a professor of neurology at Montreal’s McGill University whose research focuses on the brain basis of decision-making. “We’ve needed the resolution of modern neural-imaging and other techniques to identify those variations reliably enough in the general population.”

AN ACCOUNTING BRAIN?

This type of brain research is quite recent and, while numerical processing skills have been studied, it’s a much bigger leap to declare the existence of an accounting brain. After all, a facility with numbers is just one part of an accountant’s required abilities. Plus, even if we say people who are good with numbers have tighter brain wiring in certain areas, we don’t know whether that difference is a cause or effect, says Fellows. “Did they have that structure to start with or did they develop those changes in the brain by practising and experience? There is evidence for both those things going on in the human brain.”

Neal Chaudhary believes there is at least partial truth to the notion of being born with an accounting brain. Early in his career, he believed he was one of those people. He became a professional accountant in 2000 and worked his way from junior to manager to controller to CFO. But then, about 10 years into his career, something changed. “To that point, deep down, I enjoyed the conformity of it, the closure, the repetition, the structure. The more I matured, however, the more I enjoyed the problem-solving aspects, the relationship building, and the unknown — all things I didn’t enjoy when I first started my career,” he says.

About four years ago, Chaudhary changed course and cofounded IT consulting firm Tacit Management Consulting in Vancouver. “I moved away from craving structure to craving variety, the unknown. It’s antithetical to my reasons for becoming an accountant,” he says. “A lot of my accounting peers love the fact they know what they’re going to be doing the third Tuesday of each month. Now I thrive on ambiguity. I think all these traits that I discovered about myself were always there — I just didn’t have the understanding to nurture them.”

EXPERIENCE CHANGES THE BRAIN

The notion of biological determinism — nature versus nurture — is an old one, but advances in neuroscience are making it a hot topic again. Fellows doesn’t agree that your life course is fully determined by the biology of the brain because even if you have the exact same brain doing the same process in the same environment, you will get slightly different outcomes. “Experience changes the brain. Over seconds, weeks and months we can see visible changes in structures of the brain,” she says. “It is not a fixed system. I do think we are our brains but I also think that’s not a limiting statement.”

The brain’s ability to change does not imply that people don’t have any kind of predispositions to be good at something. “We do know that you can give two children the same amount of piano instruction but one becomes a concert pianist and the other remains a good amateur,” says Ansari. “They’ve had the same amount of experience but the brain of the concert pianist has changed in different ways. Why? It’s likely due to genetic influences. We know from twin studies that a large percentage of our traits can be ascribed to genes, and the interaction between genes and the environment.”

One of the themes running through Ramachandran’s book The Tell-Tale Brain is that many of our unique mental traits have evolved through the novel deployment of brain structures that originally evolved for other reasons. Among those structures are the visual and auditory pathways, which are segregated all the way up to the frontal lobe in an area called the anterior cingulate cortex — a collar of tissue where free will originates, writes Ramachandran.

Here’s where things get tricky. Ramachandran argues the brain has evolved a second set of neural circuitry, a second brain that creates a second interpretation of what we see and hear. And this second interpretation is intimately linked to our values, beliefs, priorities and sense of self — the very things we use to determine a course of action. His big point — and it’s backed up by brain scans — is that only some parts of the brain are conscious, not all.

FREE WILL OR NO FREE WILL?

So does free will exist? “The notion that we voluntarily choose our actions is neurobiologically implausible because we know that any behaviour we engage in boils down to firing patterns in the brain, which are not guided by some kind of conductor that exerts free will — and firing patterns in the brain are determined by genes and the environment,” says Ansari. “That doesn’t mean we can’t be held accountable for our actions or that our paths are fully determined from the start. It just means that we are much less in control of our behaviours than we perhaps think we are.”

Swaab goes even further: “Characteristics are innate. You can’t change them. Our current knowledge of neurobiology makes it clear that there’s no such thing as absolute freedom. Many genetic factors and environmental influences ... determine the structure and therefore the function of our brains for the rest of our lives.”

James Kow, a philosophy professor at Western University’s King’s College, doesn’t buy it. He argues the brain is much more complicated than the current basis for neuroscience: the 15 billion or so neurons, relays and electronic circuitry comprising what Swaab and Eagleman describe as a computer-like model that, in effect, runs its own show. “Even if you knew your neurons were affecting you, [as a CPA] professional judgment is much more complicated than that. You still have to stand by it,” says Kow. “It’s like Greek philosopher Democritus said: we’re all determined but you’re still responsible. Aristotle took this notion further, saying it’s not the soul that decides. It’s the human being. You’re an accountant; that’s a profession. What do you profess? That your neurons made you do it?”

According to Susan Carey, a psychology professor at Harvard University, there is no reason to think accountants become accountants and taxi drivers become taxi drivers because of how their brains are structured. “Yes, there are causal processes that result in the knowledge we have, and the knowledge we have affects the brain. But I don’t believe our brain structure determines our actions,” she says. “I think humans have the capacity for imagining what’s going to happen in the future and then evaluating, in terms of moral principles, which actions we should engage in.”

Eagleman sees it differently. He says we’re engineered to be what we eventually become and most of the time consciousness plays no role in decision-making. He points to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who wrote Kubla Khan while high on opium. And to mathematician James Clerk Maxwell, who admitted on his deathbed in 1862 that he had no idea how the set of fundamental equations that unify electricity and magnetism had “come to him.” The conscious mind plays a role in your know-how, but not in the way you likely imagine. According to Eagleman, much of the knowledge in the depths of the unconscious brain began in the form of conscious plans. Essentially, your most fundamental (conscious) drives are stitched into the fabric of your neural circuitry.

Consider Marilyn McNevitts’ career path, for example. A vice-president at Scotiabank in Toronto, she’s the only one of her siblings who went to university. “I was always very goal oriented. I was good at math and keen on it. I liked business. In fact, instead of playing school, I’d play office. But this wasn’t because of any exposure to business. My mom was a lab assistant at the high school and dad worked at CN. It was just this innate preference I had,” she says. She earned her undergraduate degree in commerce at the University of Manitoba and understood early on that becoming a professional accountant would open the most doors. “I had a goal for the type of lifestyle I wanted to achieve and I thought the CPA was the best path to achieve that goal.”

A DETERMINED BRAIN DOES NOT MEAN A FIXED BRAIN

So what does it all mean? For her part, Fellows says the more we learn about the brain the more optimistic we should be about the brain’s ability to change at all levels, and the degree to which experiences at all stages of life may be important. Just how much can the brain change? Does the plasticity argument mean that a CPA can become a neuroscientist, for example? “Probably, if you really want to and are motivated enough,” says Carey. “While you don’t want to deny there are individual differences in ultimate capacity, those differences are dwarfed by the effects of hard work. But hard work requires motivation and time. I don’t think the individual differences you see in expertise in any way provide evidence that there were innate differences to start with in the relevant brain areas.”

Even if there were, two things can be true, says Ansari. “Plasticity is entirely possible within a brain that is determined. A determined brain does not mean a fixed brain. It simply means the owner of that brain doesn’t have volitional control over his or her behaviour, which doesn’t mean that the brain can’t change in response to the environment. These two views are not in opposition.”

Perhaps Foster sums it up best. When asked if he believes he had a natural aptitude for accounting, he replies: “Neuroscientists will tell you what I think I thought back when I started my CPA career has no relation to what I actually thought. What my brain tells me today is that I didn’t realize there were other options.”

DID YOU KNOW?

Perception is not reality

According to neuroscientist David Eagleman, vision and hearing and the perception of time are all constructs of the brain. Sight is processed faster than hearing but we experience them simultaneously after an event that has already happened. “We have the impression we are experiencing reality fully, in real time, like a video camera would, but that’s a fiction,” says Lesley Fellows, a professor of neurology at McGill University in Montreal. “The brain spends a lot of effort filling in the gaps and on projecting what might happen next because that’s what we need to know to respond optimally.”

THE NUMBER SENSE

We are born with a number sense, the ability to discriminate between different numbers of items and sets, and we share that ability with other animals. That is the ground-breaking hypothesis of Stanislas Dehaene, a professor of experimental cognitive psychology at Collège de France, in his respected bestselling book The Number Sense: How the Mind Creates Mathematics. That said, the literature is mixed as to whether we are born with a sensitivity to numbers specifically, or quantity more generally. “It’s nature and nurture because even though you can discriminate which of two groups of people contains more people, humans have invented symbolic systems representing numbers, and that ability we don’t share with animals,” says Daniel Ansari, director of the Numerical Cognition Lab at Western University. “We’ve evolved these symbolic systems over thousands of years. Children may be born with a basic sense of quantity, but then they need to learn these systems.” Dehaene writes that even though number sense is wired into the brain for everyone at birth and that genes probably play some role in mathematical talent, that role is eclipsed by the power of learning fuelled by a passion for numbers.

About the Author

Mary Teresa Bitti


Mary Teresa Bitti is a freelance writer based in Oakville, Ont.

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