PressCNRS international magazine

Table of contents


Innate math skills ?

Are human beings somehow 'pre-wired' for maths? A recent study by researchers from CNRS, Paris-5 and Pierre Mendès France universities, suggests that babies as young as five months old have an abstract sense of numbers.


formes bb

© D'après J. Féron/CNRS

Visual shapes shown to babies during the experiment.

Published in Cognitive Development,1 the experiment demonstrates that infants can match the number of objects they touch manually with the number of objects in a visual display. “These findings are important because they provide evidence that babies have a representation of small quantities in a way that is very cognitive, the same that can be found in adults,” explains Arlette Streri, professor of developmental psychology at René Descartes University in Paris.

Using the “preferential looking procedure,” researchers displayed images containing two or three items to 48 babies. On average, the infants spent a significantly longer time staring at images that did not correspond to the number of objects they had previously touched, a reaction that indicates surprise. This suggests that babies have an amodal perception of numbers, meaning that they have extracted an abstract representation of numbers from a simple sensory experience and then employed it in a different perceptual mode. This result is true for a maximum number of three objects.

The early amodal registration of numerical information has been up for debate for over twenty years. While a 1983 study showed that babies detected the numerical correspondence between sound and vision, several subsequent studies could not replicate these findings. Feron's results, along with a new study by American researchers,2 both carefully controlling for sensory qualities that may have skewed earlier results, seem to have ended the dispute.

Behind this controversy lies the age-old question of nature vs nurture. For many cognitive psychologists, adult-like capacities in young babies cannot be accounted for by a classic learning mechanism. The theory of “core knowledge,” developed by Harvard professor Elizabeth Spelke, asserts that all humans are born with basic cognitive skills that underlie learning throughout life. But CNRS researcher Edouard Gentaz remains cautious: “That our findings revealed a core knowledge is probable, but not certain. We will have to replicate our experiment with newborns to determine whether basic skills are present at birth.”


Marianne Niosi

Notes :

1. J. Féron et al., “Evidence of amodal representation of small numbers across visuo-tactile modalities in 5-month-old infants,” Cognitive Development 21 (2): 81-92. 2006.
2. K.E. Jordan and E. Brannon,“The multisensory representation of number in infancy,” PNAS. 103 (9): 3486-3489. 2006.

Contacts :

> Edouard Gentaz
Laboratoire de psychologie et neurocognition, Grenoble.

> Arlette Streri
Laboratoire Cognition et Développement, Paris.


Back to homepageContactcredits