The congruency effect: Study shows walking can boost your math abilities

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Movies often show someone pacing around their office while thinking about a problem they are stumped on. But have you ever wondered why pacing is associated with problem solving? As it turns out, researchers believe body movements may help individuals solve certain types of problems.

More specifically, different types of body movements may help solve particular arithmetic problems. Researchers have shown that our math abilities can be influenced by a variety of movements, including our head movements, hand movements, and horizontal/vertical motions.

Some researchers have begun focusing on how whole body movements like walking can influence individuals’ math abilities. Past research has found that our addition and subtraction skills show a “congruency effect”. These researchers discovered that people perform addition better when moving upward (like in an elevator or walking up the stairs), and perform subtraction better when moving downwards. Interestingly, this effect was seen when participants performed passive actions, such as going up or down an elevator.

Other researchers have found a congruency effect for horizontal movements as well. For horizontal congruency effects, smaller numbers are congruent to the left side, and larger numbers are congruent to the right side.

In an article published last December in Frontiers in Psychology, a team of researchers from the University of Bologna and the Italian National Research Council examined whether whole body movements could influence our math abilities. In the study, fifty-two individuals performed addition and subtraction problems while walking.

During the study, each participant was first given a starting number (e.g. 245), then were told what type of calculation they would be required to perform (addition or subtraction). Next, participants began walking and were then told to turn either right or left. They then performed the calculation aloud. If they answered incorrectly, they were given a new problem to solve.

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Results showed that we perform additions better after turning right, and perform subtractions better after turning left. These results offer further support for the “congruency effect” other researchers have suggested.

This research adds to the growing evidence that our math and movements are intertwined through what has been called a “congruency effect”. These results have important implications for a variety of people—all of us have to do mental math sometimes.

“Our study adds to previous evidence in favor of an embodied nature of number processing by showing that numbers representation is influenced by whole body motions,” the researchers wrote.

“The present findings confirm the existence of a connection among numbers, space, and motor processes, by showing the emergence of a congruency effect when subtractions and additions were calculated while moving also along an horizontal axis,” they concluded.

So next time you’re stumped by a mental math problem, try walking in a circle or taking an elevator. Research suggests that doing so may help more than you think!



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