Overcoming intuitive interference in mathematics: Insights from behavioral, brain imaging and intervention studies

Ruth Stavy, Reuven Babai*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

45 Scopus citations


It is well known that many students encounter difficulties when solving problems in mathematics. Research indicates that some of these difficulties may stem from intuitive interference with formal/logical reasoning. Our research aims at deepening the understanding of these difficulties and their underlying reasoning mechanisms to help students overcome them. For this purpose we carried out behavioral, brain imaging and intervention studies focusing on a previously demonstrated obstacle in mathematics education. The literature reports that many students believe that shapes with a larger area must have a larger perimeter. We measured the accuracy of responses, reaction time, and neural correlates (by fMRI) while participants compared the perimeters of geometrical shapes in two conditions: (1) congruent, in which correct response was in line with intuitive reasoning (larger area-larger perimeter) and (2) incongruent, in which the correct answer was counterintuitive. In the incongruent condition, accuracy dropped and reaction time for correct responses was longer than in the congruent condition. The congruent condition activated bilateral parietal brain areas, known to be involved in the comparison of quantities, while correctly answering the incongruent condition activated bilateral prefrontal areas known for their executive control over other brain regions. The intervention, during which students' attention was drawn to the relevant variable, increased accuracy in the incongruent condition, while reaction times increased in both congruent and incongruent conditions. The findings of the three studies point to the importance of control mechanisms in overcoming intuitive interference in mathematics. Overall, it appears that adding a cognitive neuroscience perspective to mathematics education research can contribute to a better understanding of students' difficulties and reasoning processes. Such information is important for educational research and practice.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)621-633
Number of pages13
JournalZDM - International Journal on Mathematics Education
Issue number6
StatePublished - 2010


  • Brain imaging
  • Control mechanisms
  • Geometry
  • Intuitive interference
  • Intuitive reasoning


Dive into the research topics of 'Overcoming intuitive interference in mathematics: Insights from behavioral, brain imaging and intervention studies'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this