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September 18th, 2008
In the News: Number Approximation: Go with Your Gut!

Remember those counting monkeys?

Earlier this summer, we posted about a study that revealed that monkeys could listen to a series of beeps and then equate it to a visual representation of the same number. One of the researchers behind the study, Kerry Jordan, explained that we have a primitive number system that “allows us to estimate quantities without using language” and that we share this ability with many animals. Humans also have another number system that is symbolic and must be learned.

An article in The New York Times this week discusses a batch of new research that seems to show that these two number systems are actually more connected than was previously thought.

In one study, a group of 14-year-olds were given a test to evaluate their approximating prowess. On a computer screen, they watched as slides covered with blue and yellow dots flashed across the screen. After each slide they were asked whether there were more blue dots or yellow dots.

The results were very interesting:

Comparing the acuity scores with other test results that Dr. Mazzocco had collected from the students over the past 10 years, the researchers found a robust correlation between dot-spotting prowess at age 14 and strong performance on a raft of standardized math tests from kindergarten onward. “We can’t draw causal arrows one way or another,” Dr. Feigenson said, “but your evolutionarily endowed sense of approximation is related to how good you are at formal math.”

While they note that it’s difficult to determine a causal relationship between symbolic math skills and those required for approximation, the findings certainly provide some food for thought. And if you want to test your own number instinct, you can try out a version of the dot-spotting test on The New York Times Web site.

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