Infants are born with the abstract ability to understand numerical ideas.

Babies aren’t just cute, say researchers at Duke University, they’ve got abstract math skills, too.

In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Elizabeth Brannon, assistant professor at Duke’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, and graduate student Kerry Jordan tested babies for pre-verbal numerical perception. They played the infants an audiotape of two or three female speaking voices, while simultaneously showing them two different video feeds: one of two women speaking, the other showing three.

“We were hoping to understand whether babies represent numbers independent of the sensory modality in which they experience a stimulus,” Brannon said via e-mail. “For example, as adult humans, we understand the numerical equivalence between three sounds, three objects, three ideas.”

Brannon and Jordan found that the babies looked significantly more often at the screen showing the number of faces that corresponded to the number of voices they heard.

The study’s results indicate that babies have an abstract mathematical sense, which predates verbal skills and exists across the other senses. In other words, babies understand that three different sounds are equivalent, numerically speaking, to three different visually perceived objects.

The results duplicated an earlier test the research group performed on monkey subjects, but may be the first conclusive experiment of its kind on infant humans, Brannon said.

“Babies have very abstract number representations,” she said. “They are not just learning something perceptual about an array of objects, but instead, represent ‘threeness’ in a way that is removed from the perceptual attributes of the stimulus.”

The researchers hope to further explore the details of infant numerical skills as well as monkey numerical skills, in order to eventually build a deeper understanding of the evolutionary origins of mathematical ability.

Originally published February 21, 2006


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