Babies’ Brains Seem to Process Numbers at the Same Level as Adults

Research from Carnegie Mellon shows that infants process quantities and ratios with the same precision as adults.

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What do adults, babies, guppies, and spiders all have in common? They have similar accounting departments. That is to say their subcortex — the place in the brain scientists believe is the number processing center — is similar. Everyone’s adult cerebral cortex grows from the infant subcortex. But like a StevenSteven song, that subcortex sticks around the head forever. This is the reason researchers from Carnegie Mellon believe grown-ups and babies can recognize numbers at the same skill level.

The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, looked at 100 adults. Each was shown ratios of dots in each eye, first individually and through both, using a stereoscope. Researchers found that subjects were able to distinguish ratios across the board, but only under one key condition: ratios had to be greater than three or four to one. According to the study, this matches up with the same kind precision newborns use to evaluate numbers.

Before Price Waterhouse Cooper opens up a nursery, understand that this doesn’t mean infants hide a secret number crunching ability. Marlene Behrmann, psychology professor and co-author of the study, clarified that these findings are mostly about quantities and ratios. “If they have two piles of Cheerios, and one pile has 16 and the other pile has four, you’ve got a four to one ratio,” Behrmann explained. “Infants are really quite good at choosing the bigger one or the smaller one, whichever they’re instructed to do.” In other words, Boss Baby can’t do taxes quite yet.

Behrmann and her team suspect that the subcortex actually trains the cortex by sending signals to it as it develops more sophisticated math skills. To know for certain, Behrmann and her colleagues would have to run the same tests on infants … by putting them in an apparatus and showing them dots as stimuli. Unfortunately for science, babies only sit still for Cheerio-based experiments.

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