- Silke Goebel
- The Conversation*
Counting is easy for adults, and they are unlikely to remember when or how they acquired this useful and seemingly automatic skill.
However, when you think about it, counting is an extraordinary invention.
It helped early humans trade, distribute food, and organize fledgling civilizations, laying the foundation for life as we know it today.
But the sensitivity to numbers is not exclusively human.
Small guppy fish and bees, as well as hyenas and dogs, have been found to perceive and act on numerical stimuli.
So answering numbers is an evolved trait that we seem to share with some animals, as well as a skill they teach us in some of our early lessons.
As a researcher in number cognition, I am interested in how brains process numbers.
Humans and animals actually share some remarkable number skills, helping them make smart decisions about where to feed and where to shelter.
But as soon as language enters the picture, humans begin to outnumber animals, revealing how words and digits underpin our advanced mathematical world.
of number systems
When we think of counting, we think of “one, two, three.” But that, of course, is based on numerical language that humans and young animals do not possess.
Instead, they use two different number systems.
From the age of ten months, human babies are already familiar with numbers.
But there is a limit to their numerical abilities: they can only detect numerical changes between one and three, such as when an apple is removed from a group of three apples.
This ability is shared by many animals with significantly smaller brains, such as fish and bees.
This first number system, which helps babies and animals perceive the number of a small set of objects without actually having to count, is likely based on an internal attention working memory system that is overwhelmed by numbers greater than three. .
As we grow older, we can estimate much higher numbers, again without needing to refer to language.
Imagine that you are a hungry hunter-gatherer. You see two bushes, one with 400 gooseberries and the other with 500.
It is preferable to approach the bush with the most fruit, but it is a great waste of time to count the berries of each bush individually.
So we calculate. And we do it with another specialized internal number system to approximate large numbers inaccurately: the so-called “approximate number system”.
Given that there is a clear evolutionary advantage for those who can quickly choose the most abundant food source, it is not surprising that fish, birds, bees, dolphins, elephants, and primates have been found to possess a rough number system.
In humans, the accuracy of this system improves with development.
Newborns can estimate approximate differences in numbers in a 1: 3 ratio, so they will be able to tell that a bush with 300 berries has more berries than one with 100.
Upon reaching adulthood, this system is perfected to a ratio of 9:10.
Although these two systems appear in a variety of animals, including young humans, this does not necessarily mean that the brain systems behind them are the same in all animals.
But since so many animal species can extract numerical information, it seems that sensitivity to numbers evolved in many species a long time ago.
What sets us apart from nonhuman animals is our ability to represent numbers with symbols.
It is not entirely clear when humans began to do this, although it has been suggested that the marks made on animal bones by our Neanderthal relatives 60,000 years ago are some of the earliest archaeological examples of symbolic counting.
The outsourcing of the counting process may have started with the parts of our body.
Fingers are natural counting tools, but they are limited to ten.
The traditional Yupno counting system in Papua New Guinea extended this to 33 by counting additional body parts, starting with the toes, then the ears, eyes, nose, nostrils, nipples, belly button, the testicles and penis.
But as our appetite for numbers grew, we began to use more advanced symbolic systems to represent them.
Today, most humans use the Hindu-Arabic numbering system to tell. An amazing invention, it uses only ten symbols (0-9) in a positional system to represent an infinite set of numbers.
When children learn the meaning of number digits, they already know the number words.
In fact, words for small numbers are typically found within the first few hundred words children produce, reciting sequences like “one-two-three-four-five” with ease.
The interesting thing here is that it takes young children some time to understand the fact that the last word in the counting sequence not only describes the order of the object in the counting list (the fifth object), but also the number of all objects counted (five objects).
While this is obvious to the numerary adult, the so-called “principle of cardinality” It is a conceptually difficult and important step for children, and it takes months to learn.
The learning of number words is also determined by the language environment.
The Munduruku, an indigenous tribe in the Amazon, have very few words for exact numbers, and instead use approximate words to denote other amounts, such as “some” and “many.”
Outside of its vocabulary of exact number words, the Munduruku’s computational performance is always approximate.
This shows how different language environments affect people’s precision when it comes to naming large exact numbers.
counting to calculate
Many children and adults struggle with math. But are any of these number systems linked to math ability?
In one study, preschoolers with a more accurate approximate number system were found to be more likely to do well in arithmetic the following year compared to their peers with a less precise approximate number system.
But overall, these effects have been small and controversial.
The ability to move from spoken number words (twenty-five) to written number symbols (25) more reliably predicts arithmetic skills in elementary school children.
Again, this shows that language plays a central role in the way humans calculate and count.
So while animals and humans routinely extract numerical information from their environment, it is language that ultimately sets us apart, helping us not only choose the most berry-laden bush, but perform the kinds of calculations on which it rests. civilization.
*Andlke Goebel is Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of York, England. This article originally appeared on The Conversation. You can see the original version here.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.