Baby Number Sense Predicts Future Math Abilities in Children

First Posted: Oct 24, 2013 12:57 PM EDT

How good will your child be at math in the future? Apparently, you can tell even when your offspring is just a baby. Scientists have discovered that babies who are good at telling the difference between large and small groups of items even before learning how to count are more likely to do better with numbers in the future.

Humans are the only species to use symbols, Arabic numerals, to represent different values. However, we aren't born with this skill. Infants have to learn how to use these symbols. Even so, babies still have a rudimentary sense of numbers, which is what made them wish to investigate phenomenon a bit further.

"When children are acquiring the symbolic system for representing numbers and learning about math in school, they're tapping into this primitive number sense," said Elizabeth Brannon, one of the researchers, in a news release. "It's the conceptual building block upon which mathematical ability is built."

This primitive number sense is essentially the ability to recognize that one amount is larger than another. For example, children can identify that 15 strawberries is more than six strawberries without having to use actual numbers to add them up.

In order to study this sense a bit further, the researchers analyzed 48 6-month-old infants to see whether or not they could recognize numerical changes. Capitalizing on the interest that most babies show in things that change, the scientists placed each baby in front of two screens. One of them always showed the same number of dots, changing in size and position, and the other screen switched between two different numerical values. Babies that could tell the difference between the two numerical values looked longer at the numerically changing screen.

That's now all the scientists did, though. When the children were 3.5 years of age, the scientists tested them with a non-symbolic number comparison game. The children were shown two different arrays and asked to choose which one had more dots without counting them. In addition, the children took a standardized math test scaled for pre-schoolers as well as an IQ test.

"We found that infants with higher preference scores for looking at the numerically changing screen had better primitive number sense three years later compared to those infants with lower scores," said Ariel Starr, one of the researchers, in a news release. "Likewise, children with higher scores in infancy performed better on the standardized math tests."

The findings reveal that there's a real connection between symbolic math and quantitative abilities. More specifically, these abilities reveal themselves in infancy even before education takes hold and shapes our mathematical abilities. This, in turn, reveals that humans are likely born with the "head" for math, or aren't.

The findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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