Mathematical logic in the human brain: syntax

PLoS One. 2009 May 28;4(5):e5599. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0005599.


Theory predicts a close structural relation of formal languages with natural languages. Both share the aspect of an underlying grammar which either generates (hierarchically) structured expressions or allows us to decide whether a sentence is syntactically correct or not. The advantage of rule-based communication is commonly believed to be its efficiency and effectiveness. A particularly important class of formal languages are those underlying the mathematical syntax. Here we provide brain-imaging evidence that the syntactic processing of abstract mathematical formulae, written in a first order language, is, indeed efficient and effective as a rule-based generation and decision process. However, it is remarkable, that the neural network involved, consisting of intraparietal and prefrontal regions, only involves Broca's area in a surprisingly selective way. This seems to imply that despite structural analogies of common and current formal languages, at the neural level, mathematics and natural language are processed differently, in principal.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Behavior
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Logic*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Mathematical Concepts*
  • Semantics*