infants have maths skills

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

The findings, published today in the British magazine Nature, appear to put an end to a long-running argument about 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. «Infants are not just passive recipients who passively take in the world,» she explained. «They can actively make inferences and reason about some aspects of the world.» «This is yet another example of infants’ surprising understanding of the world.»

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 thought. He went on to say that the publication «is a significant event in the history of developmental psychology.»

«This is a very exciting paper,» UCLA psychologist Randy Gallistel said. «It used to be assumed that these newborns’ skulls were empty. Many of the underpinnings of adult thinking may now be seen from a very young age… This is a significant shift in our understanding of what may be expected at the outset of cognitive development.»

However, University of Pittsburgh psychologist Mark Strauss stressed that further research is needed before any clear conclusions can be drawn. «It’s clear that the infants are aware of quantities and changes in quantities, which is a valuable skill…»

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.

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

Wynn utilised a «looking-time» approach that is commonly used in newborn research. 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 puppet stage-style demonstration. The youngster is placed in front of the display, for example, to do an experiment on 1 + 1. A Mickey Mouse doll is placed on the stage by a hand and then hidden behind a little screen.

In view of the newborn, the hand enters the stage and sets a second doll behind the screen. The investigators can then leave the two dolls behind the screen to offer the «correct» response or surreptitiously remove one to indicate the «wrong» answer. When the screen is removed, an observer records how long the newborn looks at the doll or dolls. In six trials, each of the 32 newborns was given the correct answer three times and the erroneous response three times.

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 answers were identical: 2 minus 1.

Wynn is currently carrying out 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, hence she will be unable to advance to larger numbers.

«What this demonstrates,» she continues, «is that infants have true numerical concepts and are capable of understanding numerical relationships.»»Infants understand a lot more about the physical world than we give them credit for.»

The study has no practical implications, 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 the 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 studies, «are radically changing that view.»There is a lot more structure than was initially thought.»


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