Infants Can Do Maths at 5 Months

An Arizona study discovered that children as early as 5 months old can execute simple addition and subtraction, demonstrating that individuals are born with an intrinsic mathematical skill that functions well before they are taught mathematics.

The findings, published today in the British magazine Nature, appear to settle a long-running argument about whether youngsters discern between tiny groups of things by actively counting or by purely perceptual, non-numerical ways.

According to the paper’s author, psychologist Karen Wynn of the University of Arizona, they do count. «Infants are not just passive recipients who passively take in the world,» she explained, «but they can actively make inferences and reason about some aspects of the world.» «This is yet another example of infants having a more surprising understanding of the world than we previously thought.»

According to psychologist Peter E. Bryant of Oxford University in England, the findings give «apparently cast-iron evidence… that young babies’ intellectual skills may go a good deal further» than experts previously supposed. The publication «is a notable event in the history of developmental psychology,» he adds.

«This is a very exciting paper,» said Randy Gallistel, a UCLA psychologist. «It used to be assumed that there was almost nothing going on in the heads of these newborns. We can now see that many of the roots of adult thought are there at a very young age… This indicates a significant shift in our understanding of what you may expect at the start of cognitive development.»

However, University of Pittsburgh psychologist Mark Strauss stressed that further research is needed before any clear conclusions can be formed. «It’s apparent that the newborns are aware of amounts and variations in quantities, which is a valuable ability…

However, they may just have proof that «something is added or taken» that is independent of arithmetic.

Over the last 20 years, experts have shown that babies exhibit a surprising range of intuitive abilities. Infants can distinguish between things based on their size, form, and colour before the age of six months. They can determine whether or not a thing is solid. They understand that items exist even when they are hidden. They can even discern if the lip movements of a speaker are appropriate for the speech they are hearing.

«These are remarkable abilities in a creature that was once thought to be completely incompetent and ineffective, but they could all be described—even dismissed—as perceptual,» Bryant said. Infants may immediately recognise changes in the quantity of things or merely observe that one group is larger or smaller than another, according to researchers. Wynn’s findings, he claims, show that the newborns have true numerical ability.

Wynn utilised a «looking-time» approach, which is commonly used in newborn research. In essence, the strategy is based on the idea that newborns will gaze at something shocking or unexpected for a longer period of time than they will at something predictable.

The researcher employs a presentation like a puppet theatre. For example, in order to do an experiment for 1 + 1, the youngster is placed in front of the display. A hand sets a Mickey Mouse doll on stage, which is then buried behind a little screen.

The hand appears on stage in front of the newborn and sets a second doll behind the screen. The investigators can then choose whether to leave the two dolls behind the screen to symbolise the «correct» response or to remove one in secret to indicate the «wrong» answer. When the screen is removed, an observer counts the number of seconds the newborn spends looking at the doll or dolls. Each of the 32 newborns was given the correct answer three times and the erroneous response three times in six trials.

Wynn discovered that the newborns spent around 20% more time looking at the «surprising or unexpected» erroneous response than they did at the correct answer. When the problem was subtraction, the same results were obtained: 2 minus 1.

Wynn is currently doing the experiment with somewhat larger issues, such as 2 plus 1, but no results have yet been obtained. Other studies show that newborns cannot recognise numerals bigger than four, thus she won’t be able to proceed to larger numbers.

«What this demonstrates,» she stated, «is that infants have true numerical concepts and are capable of understanding numerical relationships.» Infants comprehend the physical world far better than we give them credit for.»

The study has no practical ramifications, but «it is extremely important to the whole field of psychology because it is an attempt to understand how the mind works,» according to Gallistel. «The philosophy of British empiricists that attributed an absolute minimum of structure to the undeveloped mind shaped our view of cognitive development.» Wynn’s findings, along with other perceptual research, «are radically transforming that view.» There is far more structure than was originally supposed.»


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