- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 14, 2006

7-month-olds pair numbers of voices with faces


Even before babies learn to talk, they have a bit of a grasp of math, according to research concluding that infants may have an abstract sense of numerical concepts.

The research, published in this week’s edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, said 7-month-old babies demonstrated an ability to match the number of voices they heard to the number of faces they expected to see.

The study of 20 infants by researchers at Duke University was similar to a previous experiment conducted to demonstrate that monkeys show numerical perception across senses.

In the new study, babies listened either to two women simultaneously saying the word “look” or three women saying the same word.

At the same time, the infants could choose between video images of two or three women saying the word.

As they had found with the monkeys, the researchers said, the babies spent signifigantly more time looking at the video image that matched the number of women talking.

“As a result of our experiments, we conclude that the babies are showing an internal representation of ‘two-ness’ or ‘three-ness’ that is separate from sensory modalities and thus reflects an abstract internal process,” researcher Elizabeth Brannon wrote.

“These results support the idea that there is a shared system between pre-verbal infants and nonverbal animals for representing numbers,” she said.

“What we do know is that somehow, very quickly, [the babies] acquired this ability to perceive number and divorce it from the sensory information.”

Understanding the research could be useful in devising methods for teaching basic math skills to the young, Miss Brannon said.

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