Gut Instinct’s Surprising Role in Math

Inside of each of us is an innate ability to quickly decipher numerical differences between groups  – the number of people waiting in checkout line 1 vs. checkout line 2 – and use this information to our advantage (e.g. picking the shorter line). Researchers from Johns Hopkins University and the Kennedy Krieger Institute have discovered a link between this primal “approximate number” sense and the degree to which individuals are skilled at higher-level, abstract math skills.

In a study of 14 year-olds, the researchers found that the ability to quickly identify differences in the number of colored dots on a slide was positively correlated with the teenager’s ability on a range of standardized math tests – going all the way back to Kindergarten. In other words, if you can quickly decide if there are more yellow or blue dots on a slide, you are more likely to be strong in math.

The study, however, raises a number of important questions: does one's approximate number sense change as you develop from an infant to young adult? Can it be improved with training (quantity of training or quality of training)? From a brain "wiring" perspective, how does the approximate number sense interact with the abstract, higher-level math sense? Does the correlation hold for a larger sample of teenagers, from different cultures and different parts of the globe? The answers to these questions may eventually shape how early math courses are taught.

Interested in testing your “approximate number” sense? The NYT article has a link to a version of the test.