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A Review of the Effects of Abacus Training on Cognitive Functions and Neural Systems in Humans

Updated: Jul 21, 2021

The Abacus Project’s advocacy of abacus training and practice is supported by a 2020 study, published by Frontiers in Neuroscience, that suggests training with the abacus has the potential to enhance various cognitive skills including mathematics and working memory. The study also suggests that the training can result in functional and anatomical changes to the brain, some of which may explain the training-induced cognitive enhancements.

The abacus is a traditional counting tool that represents numbers by the visuospatial locations of beads. For thousands of years, this tool has been widely used in Asian countries to facilitate mathematical operations including addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and even root calculations.

This study focuses on abacus-based mental calculations (AMC). Skilled abacus users have shown the ability to perform fast and accurate mathematical operations not only with the use of a physical abacus but also by the manipulation of an imaginary abacus in their minds. The study refers to this skill as AMC, but many may know it as mental math.

Working memory is a system that supports the mental storage and recall of task-relevant information, providing a framework to support a wide range of cognitive activities including language processing, problem solving, and mathematics. While abacus training is not designed to impact working memory, researchers argue that the operational processes used in AMC involve multiple components of working memory, serving to enhance that cognitive system as well.

Mathematics and working memory are closely related to fluid intelligence, which refers to refers to the ability to reason and solve novel problems without the use of previously acquired skills and knowledge. Fluid intelligence is considered as one of the most important predictors for a wide variety of cognitive tasks.

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