Posted by: Prof. Kate | September 16, 2008

Innate Approximate Number Sense

Try this game in today’s science news.  Researchers at Johns Hopkins have been testing people to see how well they can estimate the relative sizes of groups of items.  There’s been little research concerning the brains of trained mathematicians doing abstract mathematics, but much more attention has been paid to the ways humans (and animals) are born and develop natural mathematical abilities such as recognising and estimating numbers.  For example, newborn babies with only a few days experience of the world can discriminate between two and three items (to anyone who’s ever met a newborn baby, yes, these tests are done in very ingenious but convincing ways).  Lakoff and Nunez write about these abilities in their book Where Mathematics Comes From.  And yup, they do this at Harvard too.

The New York Times version of the estimation game isn’t too well designed (the blue dots consistently overlap and cover the yellow dots when I played it), and for some reason all my errors run in the same direction.  Unfortunately the associated New York Times article is not strong on details and, as usual, seems to imply mathematics consists of estimation and calculation and little else.  Alas.  We’ll have to wait for the Nature article to actually find out what the researchers are claiming.  But the game is fun.

And if you’re curious, I hover around 82% correct over 70 or so trials.  I’m curious if they are correct in claiming most adults get 75% in their mock-up here?



  1. Bibliographical reference for Nature.

    Individual differences in non-verbal number acuity correlate with maths achievement Justin Halberda, Michèle M. M. Mazzocco, Lisa Feigenson

    SUMMARY: Human mathematical competence emerges from two representational systems. Competence in some domains of mathematics, such as calculus, relies on symbolic representations that are unique…

    Nature (07 Sep 2008), doi: 10.1038/nature07246, Letters to Editor

  2. You actually make it seem so easy with your presentation however
    I in finding this topic to be actually something that I think I might
    by no means understand. It seems too complicated
    and extremely broad for me. I’m looking ahead to your next post, I’ll attempt to get the cling of it!

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