Study shows babies grasp number, space and time concepts

Jun 15, 2010
A 9-month-old can make intuitive leaps across number, space and time. Photo by Carol Clark.

(PhysOrg.com) -- Even before they learn to speak, babies are organizing information about numbers, space and time in more complex ways than previously realized, a study led by Emory University psychologist Stella Lourenco finds.

"We've shown that 9-month-olds are sensitive to 'more than' or 'less than' relations across the number, size and duration of objects. And what's really remarkable is they only need experience with one of these quantitative concepts in order to guess what the other quantities should look like," Lourenco says.

Lourenco collaborated with neuroscientist Matthew Longo of University College London for the study, to be published in an upcoming issue of .

In his 1890 masterwork, "The Principles of Psychology," William James described the baby's impression of the world as "one great blooming, buzzing confusion."

Accumulating evidence is turning that long-held theory on its head.

"Our findings indicate that humans use information about quantity to organize their experience of the world from the first few months of life," Lourenco says. "Quantity appears to be a powerful tool for making predictions about how objects should behave."

"It's like we have a ruler in our heads," Lourenco says. Photo by Carol Clark.

Lourenco focuses on the development of spatial perception, and how it interfaces with other cognitive dimensions, such as numerical processing and the perception of time. Previous research suggests that these different cognitive domains are deeply connected at a neural level. Tests show, for instance, that adults associate smaller numbers with the left side of space and larger numbers with the right.

"It's like we have a ruler in our heads," Lourenco says of the phenomenon.

Other tests show that when adults are asked to quickly select the higher of two numbers, the task becomes much harder if the higher number is represented as physically smaller than the lower number.

Lourenco wanted to explore whether our brains just pick up on statistical regularities through repeated experience and language associations, or whether a generalized system of magnitude is present early in life.

Her lab designed a study that showed groups of objects on a computer screen to 9-month-old infants. "Babies like to stare when they see something new," Lourenco explains, "and we can measure the length of time that they look at these things to understand how they process information."

When the infants were shown images of larger objects that were black with stripes and smaller objects that were white with dots, they then expected the same color-pattern mapping for more-and-less comparisons of number and duration. For instance, if the more numerous objects were white with dots, the babies would stare at the image longer than if the objects were black with stripes.

"When the look longer, that suggests that they are surprised by the violation of congruency," Lourenco says. "They appear to expect these different dimensions to correlate in the world."

The findings suggest that humans may be born with a generalized system of magnitude. "If we are not born with this system, it appears that it develops very quickly," Lourenco says. "Either way, I think it's amazing how we use quantity information to make sense of the world."

Lourenco recently received a grant of $300,000 from the John Merck Fund, for young investors doing cognitive or biological science with implications for developmental disabilities. She plans to use it to further study how this system for processing quantitative information develops, both normally and in an atypical situation such as the learning disorder known as dyscalculia - the mathematical counterpart to dyslexia.

"Dyslexia has gotten a great deal of attention during the past couple of decades," Lourenco says. "But as our world keeps getting more technical, and students in the United States lag other countries in math, more attention is being paid to the need to reason about numbers, space and time. I'd like to explore the underlying causes of dyscalculia and maybe get a handle on how to intervene with children who have difficulty engaging in quantitative reasoning."

Explore further: In funk music, rhythmic complexity influences dancing desire

More information: Journal paper: pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2010/04/27/0956797610370158.abstract

Related Stories

Viewing the world though a baby's eyes

Oct 26, 2005

Researchers at The University of Nottingham are studying the way in which babies look at colours and numbers in an attempt to find out more about how they view the world around them.

Recommended for you

Screenagers face troubling addictions from an early age

17 hours ago

In 1997, Douglas Rushkoff boldly predicted the emergence a new caste of tech-literate adolescents. He argued that the children of his day would soon blossom into "screenagers", endowed with effortless advantages over their parents, ...

Better memory at ideal temperature

17 hours ago

People's working memory functions better if they are working in an ambient temperature where they feel most comfortable. That is what Leiden psychologists Lorenza Colzato and Roberta Sellaro conclude after having conducted ...

User comments : 15

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

freethinking
1 / 5 (4) Jun 15, 2010
Even before they learn to speak, babies are organizing information about numbers, space and time in more complex ways than previously realized.

Does this push back the time people consider babies human?

Caliban
2 / 5 (4) Jun 15, 2010
Even before they learn to speak, babies are organizing information about numbers, space and time in more complex ways than previously realized.

Does this push back the time people consider babies human?


You'd better hope not, as the ignorance displayed by such a comment would definitely place you firmly within that category.


freethinking
1 / 5 (3) Jun 16, 2010
I disagree. I believe the truely ignorant are the many people, though they are a sizable minority, who believe that babies arn't babies until they are of a certain age and functional ablities. Ie. Panned parenthood, and other abortion activists.
Caliban
1 / 5 (2) Jun 16, 2010
I disagree. I believe the truely ignorant are the many people, though they are a sizable minority, who believe that babies arn't babies until they are of a certain age and functional ablities. Ie. Panned parenthood, and other abortion activists.


No surprise there. The Abandonists- such as yourself- are all about the sanctity of life, and seeing those as yet unborn are brought to term, but once that happens, lose interest in that oh-so-precious little baby and walk away. Little bastard's on its own. Poor little baby.
freethinking
1 / 5 (2) Jun 16, 2010
Caliban, your ignorant. It is conservative that give more to charities, have a higher volunteer rate, take care of the sick, that defend the weak.

Progressives such as yourself, deny personhood to people they consider lesser humans, are selfish, and want government to take care of them. Then throw their failings such as walking way from babies onto Conservatives.

Caliban I've heard the lie you said often enough. Unfortunately for you, even if a lie is told often enough, it still is a lie.
Caliban
1.8 / 5 (5) Jun 16, 2010
Tough for you-
The lies that you tell yourself, tell all. I like your glib, preemptive assertions that you defensively use to bolster your imagined moral superiority. Like I said- no surprise.

How many unwanted babies have you adopted? How much do you donate monthly to Save the Children or a similar organization? How many hours a week do you spend as a Big Brother or Big Sister?

freethinking
1 / 5 (2) Jun 16, 2010
Been a big brother for over 7 years, donated to a similar organization over 10 years, Adopted none but helped out at an orphanages in a third world country, just taken care of my own. Helped build a drug and alcohol rehab facility in a third world country with my own hands, donated my time to other causes dealing with down and out, and on and on and on...

So you want to compare who helped more people you or I? I usually don't compare myself to anyone in this regard because there are many more who have done more than I, but with you I will make an exception.

BTW, I don't believe I'm superior to anyone moral or otherwise. I'm the one that says all people/humans are equal and deserve respect. It is progressives that deny human rights to people based on their whims. Stupid philosophies, ideas though are fair game.
Caliban
2 / 5 (4) Jun 16, 2010
Wasn't a question of how many- it was whether or not you stood behind the commitment. Good job, though- you earned some respect for acting on your principles, instead of just spouting off. At least in that regard.

Idiot statements of generalizations will always get you chewed, for instance "It is progressives that deny human rights to people based on whims."
pure bullshit, and you should know better, unless it is your object to merely inflame.

Anyone can do that.
abhishekbt
5 / 5 (2) Jun 17, 2010
Enough already guys.

I would like to know if this system develops after a certain age or is it wired in us even when we are in the womb. Maybe, our brain develops in such a way that dealing with numbers and quantities develop as instincts, as an inherent quality rather than as skills.

Think about this. Maybe even newborn babies can do this but they are only limited by their physical body which isn't as developed yet.

I mean the eyes, perception of color, recognition of external stimuli etc develop only after a few months but by then we already have a fairly developed intrinsic sense of what is more and what is less.

I think that's fascinating...
freethinking
1 / 5 (3) Jun 17, 2010
Caliban, how many hours do you donate to society?

If you look into history Progressives and the Progessive movement is linked hand in hand to Nazi's, Communist, Planned Parenthood, and even the KKK. Since these groups determine human rights on a whim, which part of my statement is false.

I consider all humans human from conception to death (very scientific), you determine human from what you feel should consitute human. Such as if the baby is a certain age, if the person has mental capacity, etc.

Caliban
2 / 5 (4) Jun 17, 2010
Caliban, how many hours do you donate to society?


I give three hours/week to the shelter.

If you look into history Progressives and the Progessive movement is linked hand in hand to Nazi's, Communist, Planned Parenthood, and even the KKK. Since these groups determine human rights on a whim, which part of my statement is false.


The entire goddam assertion is not only false, it is a lie. Did you ask mangy before you kiped it?

I consider all humans human from conception to death (very scientific), you determine human from what you feel should consitute human. Such as if the baby is a certain age, if the person has mental capacity, etc.


As soon as you can legislate a minimum, guaranteed standard of living for each person born -from conception to death, then I will back you up on your right-to-life. Otherwise it remains a right to-suffer-and-be-victimized only.
Caliban
2 / 5 (4) Jun 17, 2010
@abh,

I think that that is what is being said- that all this abilities/faculties are inborn, and used by the baby to make sense of its new environment.
freethinking
1 / 5 (3) Jun 18, 2010
Caliban you are a progressive and you statements prove what I say. Progressives determine on their whim what is considered Human and who deserves to live. For you, only people who we can guaranteed a minimum standard of living shall have the right to life.
Who determines that minimum standard? You? A government life pannel? Do you use western living standard? African Standard? 20th century standard? 17th century standard? What about disease? Downs should they live because a pannel determines their quality of life isn't as good as a normal person? How do you determine quality of life? Do you use a lawyers quality of life?

Caliban... you prove the stupidity and danger of progressives. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and unfortunately many others, would be proud of your stance. Your idea's and beliefs match theirs.
Caliban
1 / 5 (2) Jun 19, 2010
@frei-

Spoken out of complete, willfull, agressively stupid zealotry.

I know your dogma requires there be no check on population. And I also know your dogma doesn't value life for any other reason than to provide labor for whatever the elite of your Order deem fitting.

Your kind are too busy filling their pockets to give two hoots in Hell about the conditions to which your "Right to Life" claptrap condemns most of those born on this planet.

And your kind feel zero inclination -much less obligation- to even try to guarantee a minimum standard for everyone. If they have to scrap for every last shred of the necessities, that makes them much easier to push into the military, or into a sweatshop, or prostitution, or drug running- all things that you enjoy the fruits of, but would never do yourself.

But you'll always gladly make a dollar off someone else's desperation.

And then try to enoble your Neocon greed and hypocrisy by calling it God or the Free Market.
Paradox
not rated yet Jun 21, 2010
Kirk: [hailing Khan] This is Admiral Kirk. We tried it once your way, Khan, are you game for a rematch? Khan, I'm laughing at the "superior intellect." ...

More news stories

New clinical trial launched for advance lung cancer

Cancer Research UK is partnering with pharmaceutical companies AstraZeneca and Pfizer to create a pioneering clinical trial for patients with advanced lung cancer – marking a new era of research into personalised medicines ...

More vets turn to prosthetics to help legless pets

A 9-month-old boxer pup named Duncan barreled down a beach in Oregon, running full tilt on soft sand into YouTube history and showing more than 4 million viewers that he can revel in a good romp despite lacking ...