An Arizona researcher discovered that children as early as 5 months old can execute fundamental addition and subtraction, demonstrating that individuals are born with an intrinsic mathematical capacity that operates far before they are taught mathematics.
The findings, published today in the British magazine Nature, appear to settle a long-running controversy over whether youngsters discern between tiny numbers 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 matter. «Infants are not just passive recipients who take in the world passively, but they can actively make inferences and reason about some aspects of the world,» she explained. «This is yet another example of infants having a more surprising understanding of the world than we previously realised.»
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 had previously supposed. The publication «is a notable event in the history of developmental psychology,» he noted.
«This is a very exciting paper,» said UCLA psychologist Randy Gallistel. «It used to be assumed that there was almost nothing going on in the heads of these infants.» Now we can see that many of the roots of adult thought are there from a very young age… This indicates a significant shift in our understanding of what may be expected at the start of cognitive development.»
However, psychologist Mark Strauss of the University of Pittsburgh stressed that further research is needed before any clear conclusions can be formed. «It’s apparent that the newborns are aware of amounts and changes in quantities, which is a crucial ability…
However, they may just have some form of proof that «something is added or taken» that is independent of arithmetic.
In the last 20 years, experts have shown that babies exhibit a surprising range of intuitive abilities. Infants can distinguish items by their size, form, and colour before the age of six months. They can identify when an object is solid. They understand that items continue to exist even when they are hidden. They can even discern if a speaker’s lip movements are suitable for the speech they are hearing.
«These are striking abilities to find 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. Researchers have long debated whether newborns can explicitly recognise distinctions in the quantity of things or just observe that one group is larger or smaller than another. Wynn’s findings, he claims, show that neonates have true numerical ability.
Wynn adopted a «looking-time» approach, which is commonly used in newborn research. In essence, the strategy is based on the concept that newborns would gaze longer at something startling or unexpected than they will at something predictable.
The researcher employs a presentation that resembles a puppet stage. To do an experiment for 1 + 1, for example, the youngster is placed in front of the display. A hand lays a Mickey Mouse doll on the stage, which is then covered behind a little screen.
The hand enters the stage in front of the newborn and sets a second doll behind the screen. The investigators can then leave the two dolls behind the screen to indicate the «correct» response or surreptitiously remove one to represent the «wrong» answer. When the screen is removed, an observer counts how long the newborn looks at the doll or dolls. In six trials, each of 32 newborns was given the correct response three times and the erroneous answer three times.
Wynn discovered that the newborns gazed at the «surprising or unexpected» erroneous answer 20% longer than they did at the right answer. When the problem was subtraction, the answers were the same: 2 minus 1.
Wynn is currently doing the experiment with somewhat larger issues, such as 2 + 1, but has yet to see any results. She will not be able to advance to greater numbers, however, because other research show that neonates cannot recognise numerals larger than four.
«What this demonstrates,» she added, «is that infants truly have numerical concepts and are capable of understanding numerical relationships.» Infants have a considerably greater understanding of the physical world 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,» Gallistel said. «The philosophy of British empiricists, which attributed an absolute minimum of structure to the undeveloped mind, shaped our view of cognitive development.» Wynn’s findings, along with those of other perception research, «are radically transforming that view.» There is a lot more structure than was originally supposed.»
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