How we talk about numbers plays a big role in how we think about numbers—that much is clear. But this week, new research makes the case that language is not a key part of thinking about numbers, but the key part, overriding other influences like cultural ones.
The study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by psychologist Elizabet Spaepen focuses on a group of deaf Nicaraguans called the homesigners, who invented their own form of sign language—a form that lacks a numerical vocabulary.
That’s a common trait in many hunter-gatherer societies, where the numbering system is often one-two-three-many. For example, the Munduruku Amazonian people in rural Brazil don’t have any words for exact numbers larger than five. Their neighbors, the Piraha, no exact number words at all. [USA Today]
There are two things that make the homesigners extremely scientifically interesting. One is the fact that they spontaneously invented this language when brought together at a home for the deaf in the 1970s. And the other—the one that’s important for this study—is that they’re not an isolated tribe in which nobody uses numbers. They live within Nicaragua, surrounding by a Spanish-speaking society that’s as number-dependent as any other country. Thus, Spaepen’s team reasoned, if the homesigners struggle to conceptualize larger numbers, the reason would have to be linguistic and not cultural.
Young chickens just a few days old can count and perform basic arithmetic, according to a fluffy new study. Researchers manipulated objects that the chicks had formed an attachment to, moving the objects behind little screens, and found that the observant young birds kept track of where the objects were. In effect, the chicks were solving simple math problems like “4 – 2 = 2.”
While some adult animals, including primates and dogs, have been found to have an understanding of basic math, researchers had not previously demonstrated numerical abilities in any young animals (except for humans). Karen Wynn, who has reported evidence of numerical skills in human babies, points out that the chicks haven’t had a chance to learn or develop much. “This work, then, is a compelling existence proof that numerical understanding comprises a built-in system of unlearned knowledge,” Wynn says [Science News].
Honeybees have the ability to distinguish and remember visual quantities up to four, according to a new study. Researchers demonstrated that honeybees can match patterns containing the same number of icons, even when the icons are of mixed color and shape. This suggests that honeybees possess a basic number sense that was once thought to be exclusive to vertebrates. Researcher Shaowu Zhang says, “There has been a lot of evidence that vertebrates, such as pigeons, dolphins or monkeys, have some numerical competence but we never expected to find such abilities in insects. So far as these very basic skills go, there is probably no boundary between insects, animals and us” [Daily Mail]
To test the extent of the bees’ number sense, researchers set up a Y-shaped maze with a sweet treat at the end of one arm. In the training phase, bees entered the base of the maze through an entrance marked with either two or three dots. They had to remember this number when the maze forked into two paths— one marked with two dots, the other with three—in order to reach a sugar-water reward [Telegraph]. The 20 or so bees that were trained attained a success rate of 70 percent. Researchers then presented tougher challenges by increasing the number of dots. The bees could also distinguish between three and four dots, but were confused when even more dots were added.
Mathematicians at UCLA believe they have found a very long and very special prime number: It clocks in at nearly 13 million digits, and belongs to an elite group of numbers called Mersenne primes. If the math checks out, the discovery will win UCLA’s math department a $100,000 prize that was offered for the first Mersenne prime found with over 10 million digits.
Primes are numbers like three, seven and 11 that are divisible by only two whole positive numbers: themselves and one. Mersenne primes — named for their discoverer, 17th century French mathematician Marin Mersenne — are expressed as 2P-1, or two to the power of “P” minus one. P is itself a prime number. For the new prime, P is 43,112,609 [AP].
A new study argues that people have an intuitive understanding of numbers that closely correlates with their aptitude for complex math, and that some people are simply better at it. The research team found that 14-year-olds who were better at estimating quantities were more likely to have gotten high grades in math. Says lead researcher Justin Halberda: “We discovered that a child’s ability to quickly estimate how many things are in a group significantly predicts their performance in school mathematics all the way back to kindergarten” [Washington Post].
Researchers expressed surprise that the basic “number sense” that has been observed in some animals is linked to the ability to solve complicated equations. “Maximising your search for food, finding a seat on the bus, recognizing the difference between a mating call and an alarm call in a particular species of bird by the number of warbles — all of these require [number sense]…. What is surprising is that the formal mathematics we work so hard to learn in school … is related in any way to what a rat is doing when it is out looking for scraps of food, or what you and I are doing when we look for a seat on a bus,” said Halberda [AFP].
Aboriginal children who lack words for numbers above two can still count the number of objects in a set, and can even perform basic arithmetic, according to a new study. Previous studies had suggested that words for specific numbers are needed for children to develop the concepts of numbers above three. But the new research suggests that humans may have an innate “number competency.” Says lead researcher Brian Butterworth: “We’re born with the ability to see the world numerically just as we’re born to see the world in colour” [BBC News].
The researchers tested Aboriginal children between the ages of 4 and 7, as well as a control group of English-speaking children from Melbourne. The Aboriginal children spoke the languages Warlpiri and Anindilyakwa, which lack a vocabulary for numbers beyond words for one, two, few, and many. “It’s not just that these cultures lack the words for numbers: they just don’t count things,” said Butterworth. Nevertheless, the kids counted just as well — and often better — than their English-speaking counterparts…. “I see it as part of a larger issue,” said Butterworth. “What kinds of cognitive tools are provided by culture, and what is provided by us when we come into the world?” [Wired News]