Animals Are Bad At Math
October 30, 2012

Study: All Animals, Other Than Humans, Bad At Math

Lee Rannals for — Your Universe Online

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that although your dog may understand the concept two treats are better than one, the idea of formal math is a uniquely human trait.

The team was able to show how variations in both advanced arithmetic and geometry skills specifically correlated with variations in a human's sense of magnitude.

"Our results clearly show that uniquely human branches of mathematics interface with an evolutionarily primitive general magnitude system,” lead author Stella Lourenco, a psychologist at Emory University, said in a statement.

Babies as young as six months old can distinguish between less and more, but other animals species are able to do the same.

Monkeys tend to take the bigger bunch of bananas when offered a selection between two or five bananas.

“It´s obviously of adaptive value for all animals to be able to discriminate between less and more,” Lourenco said in the statement. “The ability is widespread across the animal kingdom — fish, rodents and even insects show sensitivity to magnitude, such as the number of items in a set of objects.”

Only humans, though, are able to learn formal math, including symbolic notations of numbers, quantitative concepts and computational operations.

During the study, the team wanted to build on work by others indicating that a lower-order sense of number is not just a separate function, but plays a role in the mental capacity for more complex math.

They recruited 65 undergraduate college students to participate in an experiment and test their knack for estimating the magnitude of numbers.

The participants were shown images of dots in two different colors, flashed for only 200 milliseconds on a computer screen. They then had to choose which color had the greater number of dots.

Most people quickly distinguished that a group of 10 dots is greater than a group of five, but some showed a finger-grained number sense that allowed them to discriminate between 10 and nine dots.

The participants were also shown dots of varying size and colors to test their ability to gauge magnitude of area.

The results showed the more the precise the participants' abilities were at estimating the magnitude of a number, the better they scored in advanced arithmetic.

“By better understanding the psychological mechanisms underlying math abilities such as arithmetic and geometry, we hope to eventually inform how we come to learn symbolic math, and why some people are better at it than others,” study co-author Justin Bonny, an Emory graduate student of psychology, said in the statement. “It may then be possible to develop early interventions for those who struggle with specific types of math.”