New theory debunks consensus that math abilities are innate

New theory debunks consensus that math abilities are innate -- Ben-Gurion University study
This example demonstrates the relationship between size and number: usually, more items will take up more space in the shopping cart, unless you have a few larger, denser items. Credit: Tali Leibovich

A new theory regarding how the brain first learns basic math could alter approaches to identifying and teaching students with math learning disabilities. Published in the Behavioral and Brain Sciences journal, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) researchers offer a better understanding of how, when and why people grasp every day math skills.

The most widely accepted theory today suggests people are born with a "sense of numbers," an innate ability to recognize different quantities, like the number of items in a shopping cart, and that this ability improves with age. Early math curricula and tools for diagnosing math-specific learning disabilities such as dyscalculia, a brain disorder that makes it hard to make sense of numbers and math concepts, have been based on that consensus.

Ph.D. students Naama Katzin and Maayan Harel and Prof. Avishai Henik, all from the BGU Department of Psychology and the Zlotowski Center for Neuroscience, collaborated with Dr. Tali Leibovich from the Numerical Cognition Laboratory at the Department of Psychology & Brain and Mind Institute, University of Western Ontario. Dr. Leibovich was formerly a Ph.D. researcher at BGU's Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and the Zlotowski Center.

"If we are able to understand how the brain learns math, and how it understands numbers and more complex math concepts that shape the world we live in, we will be able to teach math in a more intuitive and enjoyable way," says Dr. Leibovich. "This study is the first step in achieving this goal."

The study challenges the prevalent "sense of numbers" theory. Other theories suggest that a "sense of magnitude" that enables people to discriminate between different "continuous magnitudes," such as the density of two groups of apples or total surface area of two pizza trays, is even more basic and automatic than a sense of numbers.

The researchers argue that understanding the relationship between size and number is critical for the development of higher math abilities. By combining number and size (e.g., area, density and perimeter), we can make faster and more efficient decisions.

Take for example the dilemma over choosing the quickest checkout line at the grocery store. While most people intuitively get behind someone with a less filled-looking cart, a fuller-looking cart with fewer, larger items may actually be quicker. The way we make these kinds of decisions reveals that people use the natural correlation between number and continuous magnitudes to compare magnitudes.

The researchers also urge colleagues to consider the roles other factors, such as language and cognitive control, play in acquiring numerical concepts. While the theoretical models presented in this review may raise more questions than answers, the researchers hope their hypothesis will reveal new ways of identifying dyscalculia, which can currently only be diagnosed in school-aged children. By this stage, children with the disorder are already lagging behind their peers.

"This new approach will allow us to develop diagnostic tools that do not require any formal math knowledge, thus allowing diagnosis and treatment of dyscalculia before school age," says Dr. Leibovich.

Explore further

Empowering preschool children with the language of math adds up to stronger skills

More information: Tali Leibovich et al, From 'sense of number' to 'sense of magnitude' – The role of continuous magnitudes in numerical cognition, Behavioral and Brain Sciences (2016). DOI: 10.1017/S0140525X16000960
Citation: New theory debunks consensus that math abilities are innate (2016, November 1) retrieved 15 September 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Nov 01, 2016
I didn't know I had a learning disability until I met Mr Tensor and his friends

Nov 01, 2016
What we're doing is learning the relationships between the variables comprising logical operations - information about information is metadata, which has to be generated and mapped out internally. It's this extra-vocabular comprehension that seems uniquely individual, and so gives rise to the perception of innate ability.

But we all have an intuitive grasp of simple relationships like inverse / reciprocal and addition / multiplication etc. - it's just when the variables shift from objectively empirical fields to the more abstract and unfamiliar 'meta' fields that we hit the conceptual brick wall - and why integrals seem easier than diffs.

Nov 01, 2016
The title and the article is a fraud. First, this is not a theory or even an hypothesis, but a suggested direction of study. And, note, even if it was a full theory, without proof, it cannot "debunk" anything. And, note, "debunking" applies to disproving something suggested with craven, corrupt purpose, not an alternative explanation. Too, being able to discern size and number and make judgments can be called innate. The description provided suggests those who are uncontrollably impulsive can have trouble with mathematics. Mathematics is not as much about magnitudes and numbers as rules and, if someone can't override a tendency not to think things through, they can have difficulties.

Nov 01, 2016
Now I know why men outnumber women in advanced math sciences.....or do I?

Nov 01, 2016
Yeah, I agree with julianpenrod. The title completely misrepresents the article.

Nov 01, 2016
Robert and Julian - Yes, you're quite right, but the quality of the article is unimportant: both authors are female, and that's what counts. I am amazed at how many female second and third authors, or simply "team members" are highlighted by name as though they are first author in many "scientific news" stories. Initially, I never checked it out; but - as the push to prove that females are carving out the forefront of all science, hard and soft - I am beginning to understand the "list of objectives" of editorial staff promotions.

Nov 02, 2016
Lazlo Polgar, father of three daughters, already proved that genius level mental abilities come from nurture rather than nature.

Nov 02, 2016
The fraudulent Clickbait headline is the reason I am putting on my Blocksite list.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more