Math ability is inborn

You can count on this: Math ability is inborn
Melissa Libertus is a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Johns Hopkins University's Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. Credit: Will Kirk/JHU

We accept that some people are born with a talent for music or art or athletics. But what about mathematics? Do some of us just arrive in the world with better math skills than others?

It seems we do, at least according to the results of a study by a team of Johns Hopkins University . Led by Melissa Libertus, a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, the study -- published online in a recent issue of Developmental Science -- indicates that math ability in is strongly linked to their inborn and primitive "number sense," called an "Approximate Number System" or ANS.

Research reveals that "number sense" is basic to all animals, not just human beings. For instance, creatures that hunt or gather food use it to ascertain where they can find and procure the most nuts, plants or game and to keep track of the food they hunt or gather. We humans use it daily to allow us, at a glance, to estimate the number of open seats in a movie theater or the number of people in a crowded meeting. And it is measurable, even in .

Though the link between ANS and formal mathematics ability already has been established in , Libertus says her team's is the first study to examine the role of "number sense" in too young to already have had substantial formal mathematics instruction.

"The relationship between 'number sense' and math ability is important and intriguing because we believe that 'number sense' is universal, whereas math ability has been thought to be highly dependent on culture and language and takes many years to learn," she explained. "Thus, a link between the two is surprising and raises many important questions and issues, including one of the most important ones, which is whether we can train a child's number sense with an eye to improving his future math ability."

The team tested 200 4-year-old (on average) children on several tasks measuring number sense, mathematical ability and verbal ability. The children were rewarded for their participation with small trinkets, such as stickers and pencils.

During the number sense task, researchers asked the children to view flashing groups of blue and yellow dots on a computer screen and to estimate which color group of dots was more numerous. Counting wasn't an option, both because the dots were flashed so quickly and because most of the children were not yet skilled counters. The preschoolers would then verbally tell the tester whether the yellow or blue dots were more numerous, and the tester would press the appropriate button. Some comparisons were easy (like comparing five yellow versus 10 blue dots). Others were much harder (like comparing five yellow versus six blue dots). Children were informed of right or wrong answers via a high- or low-pitched beep.

The children also were given a standardized test of early mathematics ability that measures numbering skills (verbally counting items on a page), number-comparison (determining which of two spoken number words is greater or lesser), numeral literacy (reading Arabic numbers), mastery of number facts (such as addition or multiplication), calculation skills (solving written addition and subtraction problems) and number concepts (such as answering how many sets of 10 are in 100.) This standardized test is often given to children between the ages of 3 and 8 years.

Lastly, the parents and guardians of the children were given an assessment that asked them to indicate each word on a list that their children had been heard to say. According to Libertus, this verbal test was administered because language and math abilities are to some extent linked through general intelligence, and the researchers wanted to make sure that the differences in math ability that they found were not just due to some children performing better on all kinds of tasks, or to some children feeling more comfortable being tested than others.

Libertus and her colleagues Lisa Feigenson and Justin Halberda, faculty members in the Department of Psychological and , found that the precision of children's estimations correlated with their math skill. That is, the children who could make the finest-grained estimations in the dot comparison task (for example, judging that eight yellow dots were more than seven blue dots) also knew the most about Arabic numerals and arithmetic.

According to the researchers, this means that inborn numerical estimation abilities are linked to achievement (or lack thereof) in school mathematics.

"Previous studies testing older children left open the possibility that differences in instructional experience is what caused the difference in their number sense; in other words, that some children tested in middle or high school looked like they had better number sense simply because they had had better math instruction," Libertus said. "Unlike those studies, this one shows that the link between 'number sense' and math ability is already present before the beginning of formal math instruction."

Still in question, of course, is the root cause of the link between number sense and math ability. Do children born with better number sense have an easier time learning to count and to understand the symbolic nature of numbers? Or it is just that children born with less accurate may end up avoiding math-related activities before they develop competency?

"Of course, many questions remain and there is much we still have to learn about this," Libertus said. "But what we have done raises many important avenues for future research and applications in education. One of the most basic is whether we can train children's Approximate Number System and thereby improve their , and whether we can develop school math curricula that make use of children's ANS abilities and thus, help them grasp more advanced math concepts earlier."

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More information:
Developmental Science DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-7687.2011.01080.x
Citation: Math ability is inborn (2011, August 8) retrieved 22 May 2019 from
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Aug 08, 2011
Is ANS just another name for associative memory? It makes perfect sense that some children have faster brain responses, especially under conditions of reward - the trinket.

But unfortunately, the brain of each child develops while in the womb and also outside the womb. How do you rule out all those unknown variables (diet, baby dropped on head, lead paint) which can largely impact brain development?

Aug 08, 2011
"The relationship between 'number sense' and math ability is important and intriguing because we believe that 'number sense' is universal, whereas math ability has been thought to be highly dependent on culture and language and takes many years to learn," - Melissa Libertus explained.

Kudos to all researchers.
Physically, we perform Fourier Analysis. We listen to sound.
Nature's biologically answer to a math description of Nature.

Sound perception is inborn. You want to teach children of all ages math? Start with sound. Nature does.

Math ability is inborn. Yes. You paid good attention. You listened. And during gestation. Pretty good math for a world of sound that was waiting for you to be born to prove that.

I hear you.

You are hearing voices? So what else is new?

Aug 08, 2011
"Math ability is inborn. Yes.

I hear you.


If it was "inborn" that would imply a genetic cause.

My family tree, (parents/grandparents,) is filled with half of them being high school dropouts or barely graduateds who barely passed the equivalent of what we call "pre-algebra" today.

By comparison, I can do up to 8 digits by 8 digits multiplication in my head, 6 digits by 6 digits reliably, and can do pythagorean theorem in my head in feet, inches, and 32nds.

Nobody in my family, can do anywhere near the maths that I can do, and I certainly wasn't born that way. In elementary I got mediocre math scores, either because of some combination of unlearned parents and bad teachers, or my own self, or whatever.

It was only after a very good 8th grade teacher, AND some self-teaching books from the High School library that I actually got good at math.

Hasn't helped me much in life though. Still surrounded by the same 50yrs outdated idjit family

Aug 08, 2011
I mean, God bless their souls, they try, but they are the opposite of everything that is good about this site, or me for that matter.

This site is about pushing the envelope of what is possible in physics and technology, reaching to the future.

My relatives, on the other hand, WANT to live in the dark ages, almost like menonites or ammish, except they aren't.

Sorry for the rant, but I'm completely vexed by my family, because they sit around watching useless crap on TV, like professional wrestling, EVERY day, whereas I'm constantly trying to absorb something new about science and technology.

It's like they are from a completely different planet.

No, I don't think it's "Inborn." If it is, then what excuse do my elders have for being miserable failures in maths and science, even at 1960's and 1970's era high school level?

I might be "with" stupid, but I'm not stupid, not that stupid anyway, thank God.

Aug 08, 2011
Now see this, for example:

I at least tried to teach myself Basic, C , HTML, PHP, etc, and know how to do a lot of things, but not good enough to make money doing it. Can even write my own database froms scratch, and was working on a sort of scripting engine at one time.

What the hell? Half my family can't even turn a computer on, and the other half can only do the most basic stuff, and yet they call ME lazy, even though I do nothing with most of my time except try to learn more.

Not inborn at all.

The notion that math skills (or by implication maybe science,) are inborn is personally insulting.

Didn't get good "math DNA" from mom or dad, that's for sure.

Aug 08, 2011
Definitely. Math abilities appear to be inborn ...seemingly inherited, as well.

Aug 09, 2011
Well, Techno1, you may be closely related to your family members, but you're not clones. And I, too, went from being "bad" to "good" at math, but just because someone has an inborn talent doesn't mean it has to manifest itself immediately, or at all. Sometimes it has to be triggered into activity, or at least be free from suppressing influences.

Aug 09, 2011
I am skeptical. I think it is equally, if not more important, to have passionate teachers to help foster interests in subjects like math.

Aug 09, 2011
Interesting work, but there is one small catch. I have to admit - reluctantly - that it is possible for differences in math training to affect their results.

Speaking as the devils advocate, I would say the following: kids who have been taught math by their parent develop good number sense. After all, the kids were able to use math tools when tested about their math abilities (identify numbers, say which of two numbers is the greatest..), so clearly some training has been going on.

The training could be inadvertent, but it could never the less have been of different when comparing the different kids. So, it would have strengthed their conclusion if they could have shown that there was no difference in training.

A final note. I do beleive that most of correlation would still be present even when different levels of "training" would have been accounted for.

Aug 09, 2011
Also, what about the difference in peoples' abilities to comprehend abstract concepts ? I would think this is important for math, but for sure not dependant on mathmatical ability.

It is possible for people to comprehend abstract concepts and still be bad with numbers at the same time.

Aug 14, 2011
This seems to me like thinly-disguised Eugenics. What do you say, Doc? You a believer? Sieg Heil!

Aug 14, 2011
It's another example of self-evident, wasteful research of social parasites, which should be cut ASAP.


Of course, the people have talent into different things - if it wouldn't, they wouldn't called a talented. Every teacher knows about it.

Aug 15, 2011
Yes, I do believe that some are born with more abilities/talent in specific areas, and that the environment does/MAY affect said abilities. Once again, Nature vs Nurture. Oh, and Techno1, am with you dear cousin! (No relation, although many would think we are all inbred~ rofl) And as several comments spoke to, much can be opened by a person able and willing to teach such math to an individual. Having experience as an Intervention Specialist, one learns ways to address the specific needs and learning modalities of individuals, AND there are differences in the speed at which each learns. All I can do is continue to address individual needs and "open windows where doors have closed". Can't stop trying~

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