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Body + BrainBody & Brain

Babies Are Born to Count

ByAllison EckNOVA NextNOVA Next

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Two, dos, deux. They all mean the same thing, no matter the language. And it’s not a coincidence. Experts maintain that across the board, humans have an inherent ability to distinguish between groups of objects of varying magnitude. In other words, they believe that math is—at least to some extent—innate.

Cognitive scientists have labelled this an “approximate number system,” or ANS. A

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study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by graduate student Ariel Starr (and her colleagues at Duke University) now confirms their suspicion that the ANS anchors the brain’s general knowledge of math early on and enables a child to count and do more advanced number-crunching later in life.

Starr’s team showed 48 six-month-old babies two sets of dots on a screen. On one set, 10 dots flashed in various patterns. On the other, the set alternated between 10 and 20 dots, also arranged in different patterns. Here’s Rachel Nuwer writing for ScienceNOW:

The team tracked the infants’ gaze—a common method for judging infant cognition—to see which set of dots they preferred to watch. Babies prefer to look at new things to old things, so the pattern of dots that flashed between arrays of 10 and 20 should appear more interesting to infants because the dots were changing not just in position, but in number. Both screens changed dot position simultaneously, so in theory, the flashing pattern changes were equally distracting. If an infant indicated that she picked up on the difference in dot numbers by preferentially staring at the 10- and 20-dot side of the screen, the researchers concluded that her intuitive number sense was at work.

Three years later, Starr’s team brought all 48 toddlers back and did a series of tests to measure their math skills. Babies who had gazed more intently at the changing number of dots at six months old tended to have higher scores on these tests than those who didn’t show a strong preference back at the lab three years earlier. But this wasn’t always the case. Here’s Virginia Hughes writing for Phenomena:

The connection between early number sense and later math skill seems to be strongest for infants that have either extremely high or extremely low scores in the dot test, notes Daniel Hyde , assistant professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. “This method may be best suited for identifying early propensities to excel or struggle in math class and less predictive for those that fall in the middle.”

In any case, the study raises the hope that that teaching babies about numbers could boost kids’ brainpower later on.

Baby Number Test
In Starr's test, babies looked at two sets of dots, one changing in number, the other remaining constant.

Photo Courtesy Brannon Lab, Duke University