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A Brain for Numbers: The Biology of the Number Instinct

Andreas Nieder
The MIT Press
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Blain Patterson
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A Brain for Numbers: The Biology of the Number Instinct is a detailed account of how our intuitive understanding of numbers is deeply rooted in our biology. Written by Professor of Animal Physiology Andreas Nieder, this book draws on brain imaging techniques and behavioral experiments to illustrate how our brain processes numbers.
This book is organized into six parts, along with a brief introduction which provides a rationale for the study of number sense in humans and animals. The six parts are organized around the themes of conceptual understanding, ancestry, neuroscience, language, development, and empiricism. Each of these sections blends mathematics, neuroscience, history, and philosophy in a way that is useful and enjoyable to anyone interested in learning more about number sense.
Part I (Conceptual Foundations of Numbers) focuses on how humans conceptualize the abstract notions of numerical representations and cardinality. Nieder takes a step back in Part II (Numbers Deeply Rooted in Our Ancestry) to discuss how various animals have evolved to use number instinct to stay alive, healthy, reproduce offspring. In Part III (Numerical Quantity in the Brain), Nieder provides the reader with a neuroscientific perspective on number sense, including an examination of both the innate and learned aspects.
Part IV (Number Symbols) focuses on viewing number sense as learning a new language and how both humans have developed symbol systems for counting. The focus of Part V (Development) is how children develop number sense, and how this development can be delayed due to learning difficulties such as dyscalculia. Finally, Part VI (The Brain Departing from Empirical Reality) discusses the scientific, philosophical, and historical of how humans have come to conceptualize the number zero.
Because of the interdisciplinary nature of this book, along with the range of theoretical and practical applications, A Brain for Numbers: The Biology of the Number Instinct may be recommended for anyone interested in learning more about our intuitive understanding of numbers. Nieder provides the reader with an amalgamation of scientific, philosophical, and historical perspectives on number sense. This book would be a useful addition to the library of any mathematician, cognitive psychologist, neuroscientist, or teacher. 


Dr. Blain Patterson ([email protected]) is Visiting Assistant Professor of Applied Mathematics at the Virginia Military Institute. His research focuses on teacher content knowledge as well as improving teaching and learning in undergraduate mathematics classrooms.
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