Babies’ Intuition for Numbers Predicts Later Skill at Math

If a 6-month-old can distinguish between 20 dots and 10 dots, she’s more likely to be good at math in preschool. That’s the conclusion of a new study, which finds that part of our proficiency at addition and subtraction may simply be something we’re born with.

Researchers have long wondered where our math skills come from. Are they innate, or should we credit studying and good teachers—or some combination of the two? “Math ability is a very complex concept, and there are a lot of actors that play into it,” says Ariel Starr, a graduate student in psychology and neuroscience at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. One of those actors appears to be the approximate number system, or the intuitive capacity to discern between groups of objects of varying magnitudes. We share this talent with numerous other animals, including rats, monkeys, birds, and fish. Some of those animals, for example, can match the number of sounds they hear to the number of objects they see, while others can watch handlers place different numbers of food items into buckets, and then choose the bucket with the most food. For ancient humans, this skill would have been an asset, Starr explains, by helping a group of humans determine if predators outnumbered them, for example.

Past studies have investigated intuitive number sense in humans ranging in age from preschoolers to college students. Some researchers asked those study participants to take math tests and judge approximate numbers on the spot, while others compared a participant’s current intuitive number sense to their past standardized math test scores. Those people who are best at math, researchers found, also tend to be good at approximating numbers. But these tests presented a chicken-or-egg situation: Does excelling at math sharpen a person’s ability to approximate numbers, or are people who are good at approximating numbers most likely to go on to excel at math? Now, a new study published online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences clarifies the direction of that relationship. The study confirms that a child’s ability to approximate numbers seems to act as a foundation for developing math skills later in life.

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