Thursday, May 31, 2007

How it All Started

I found this very interesting Nature article about our innate mathematical ability. It essentially shows that our nonsymbolic arithmetical capabilities (i.e. manipulation of, say, dots) precedes and even dominates over our symbolic capabilities (manipulation of actual "numbers"). They showed that preschoolers with no training in arithmetic were able to complete addition and comparison tasks better than chance, and that their performance in nonsymbolic tasks followed a similar pattern to adults. They concluded, or at least suggested, that once we learn arithmetic, we form a mapping of the arithmetical symbols (i.e. numbers and operators) onto real visual arrays of objects. In other words, we don't do math in our heads; we move dots around.

I've always been interested in the roots of math. It's become such an important part of our culture and education that we sometimes forget what it really is. As was said in an excellent and famous book about the origins of math, math originated from our ancestors' realization that three dots and three oranges and three mountains and three days are really just manifestations of the same abstract concept: three. So perhaps we evolved some sort of number recognition software. When you think about it, it's a pretty impressive trait. Dots, oranges, mountains, and days aren't remotely related, and yet we, as well as other higher animals, have the ability to recognize the link. And then to think of all the wonderful discoveries about our view of the universe have been made because of this link. It's astounding.


4 comments:

Rodrigo said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous Coward said...

Thanks for guest posting !

t-bozz said...

mouth-pipetting JD should be mandatory in every lab.

Andy said...

No prob! I like to rant. Where's the fourth comment?