Monday, November 23, 2009

Born With A Head For Numbers

One of the many science print magazines I subscribe to, Discover, had a very interesting column this month on human beings and the rather intuitive instinct we have for math. This goes deeper than the math we're taught in school--like algebra and calculus--to a more fundamental basic recognition. The article points out that, contrary to prior scientific belief, the basic skills for math is not something we learn cold, like riding a bike or learning to juggle---but is something hardwired into our very neurons! And that, despite major advancements in the field of mathematics within the last millennium, this instinctual skill has been around with us since long before the advent of civilization.

"Despite the late appearance of higher mathematics, there is growing evidence that numbers are not really a recent invention—not even remotely. [University of Rochester neuroscientist, Jessica] Cantlon and others are showing that our species seems to have an innate skill for math, a skill that may have been shared by our ancestors going back least 30 million years.

One sign that this skill truly is innate: Children enter the world with a head for numbers. Veronique Izard, a cognitive psychologist at Harvard University, demonstrated this in a recent study of newborns. She and her colleagues played cooing sounds to babies, with varying numbers of sounds in each trial. The babies were then shown a set of shapes on a computer screen, and the scientists measured how long the babies gazed at it. (The length of time a baby spends looking at an object reflects its interest.) Newborns consistently looked longer at the screen when the number of shapes matched the number of sounds they had just heard. For example, a baby who heard “tuuu, tuuu, tuuu, tuuu” would look the longest at four shapes, less at eight, and still less at twelve. Izard’s study suggests that newborns already have a basic understanding of numbers. Moreover, their concept of numbers is abstract; they can transfer it across the senses from sounds to pictures."


I said it before and I'll say it again: the human mind is a truly magnificent construction. Except, according to this article, we're not the only animals with this trait built into our brains. Say what?

If you want to read the article in full, click on this link.

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