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Mathematical Ability May Be Related to an Inborn Sense of Number

September 11, 2008 a new study, 14-year-olds who could readily identify the more numerous of two sets of colored dots had also achieved higher scores on standardized math tests in grade school. Such a "number sense," established by age 4 months, seems to influence later math learning and achievement. In other words, when it comes to math achievement, some may be born to count.

"Our results suggest that there is a strong and significant relationship between the acuity of a student's approximate number system and his or her performance in school mathematics," Justin Halberda of Johns Hopkins University told Science News.

Halberda and his team reported their findings in the article "Individual differences in non-verbal number acuity correlate with maths achievement," published online in Nature on Sept. 7.

Research suggests that if one has a faculty for estimating quantities, it shows up a few months after birth. Until Halberda's work, however, researchers had overlooked individual differences in the ability to estimate quantities quickly—and without counting. "We found much greater variability from one person to another than we would have predicted," Halberda said.

In the study, 64 fourteen-year-olds in public schools caught brief glimpses of arrays of blue and yellow dots on a computer screen. Each array appeared for a fraction of a second; the number of dots of either color varied from 5 to 16; and the dots varied in size. The teens who did well discriminated between numerical ratios of blue and yellow dots as close as 9 to 10. Top performers, in fact, estimated quantities as well as mathematically skilled adults could.

Moreover, individual performances corresponded with rankings on two standard math achievement tests that participants had taken from kindergarten through sixth grade. This finding held even after statistically accounting for IQ, spatial reasoning ability, working memory capacity, and a dozen other cognitive measures.

"Halberda's group provides a beautiful demonstration of a link between a measure of number sense and classical measures of math achievement," said Stanislas Dehaene (INSERM-CEA Cognitive Neuroimaging Unit, in Gif-sur-Yvette, France).

"There are many factors that might affect a person's performance in school mathematics," Halberda concluded. "What is exciting in our result is that success in formal mathematics and simple math intuitions appear to be related."

Source: Nature, Sept. 7, 2008; Johns Hopkins University, Sept. 3, 2008; Science News, Sept. 7, 2008; Washington Post, Sept. 8, 2008.

Start Date: 
Thursday, September 11, 2008