*Summary: A new study challenges the ‘sense of numbers’ theory of innate math ability.*

*Source: Ben-Gurion University.*

**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.

**Funding:** The study, “From ‘sense of number’ to ‘sense of magnitude’ – The role of continuous magnitudes in numerical cognition,” was supported by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013)/ERC Grant Agreement 295644 to AH.

**Source:** Andrew Lavin – Ben-Gurion University

**Image Source:** This NeuroscienceNews.com image is credited to Tali Leibovich.

**Original Research:** Abstract for “From ‘sense of number’ to ‘sense of magnitude’ – The role of continuous magnitudes in numerical cognition” by Tali Leibovich, Naama Katzin, Maayan Harel and Avishai Henik in *Behavioral and Brain Sciences*. Published online August 17 2016 doi:10.1017/S0140525X16000960

[cbtabs][cbtab title=”MLA”]Ben-Gurion University. “New Theory Debunks Idea That Math Abilities Are Inate.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 1 November 2016.

<https://neurosciencenews.com/math-skills-theory-5396/>.[/cbtab][cbtab title=”APA”]Ben-Gurion University. (2016, November 1). New Theory Debunks Idea That Math Abilities Are Inate. *NeuroscienceNews*. Retrieved November 1, 2016 from https://neurosciencenews.com/math-skills-theory-5396/[/cbtab][cbtab title=”Chicago”]Ben-Gurion University. “New Theory Debunks Idea That Math Abilities Are Inate.” https://neurosciencenews.com/math-skills-theory-5396/ (accessed November 1, 2016).[/cbtab][/cbtabs]

**Abstract**

**From ‘sense of number’ to ‘sense of magnitude’ – The role of continuous magnitudes in numerical cognition**

In this review, we are pitting two theories against each other: the more accepted theory—the ‘number sense’ theory—suggesting that a sense of number is innate and non-symbolic numerosity is being processed independently of continuous magnitudes (e.g., size, area, density); and the newly emerging theory suggesting that (1) both numerosities and continuous magnitudes are processed holistically when comparing numerosities, and (2) a sense of number might not be innate. In the first part of this review, we discuss the ‘number sense’ theory. Against this background, we demonstrate how the natural correlation between numerosities and continuous magnitudes makes it nearly impossible to study non-symbolic numerosity processing in isolation from continuous magnitudes, and therefore the results of behavioral and imaging studies with infants, adults and animals can be explained, at least in part, by relying on continuous magnitudes. In the second part, we explain the ‘sense of magnitude’ theory and review studies that directly demonstrate that continuous magnitudes are more automatic and basic than numerosities. Finally, we present outstanding questions. Our conclusion is that there is not enough convincing evidence to support the number sense theory anymore. Therefore, we encourage researchers not to assume that number sense is simply innate, but to put this hypothesis to the test, and to consider if such an assumption is even testable in light of the correlation of numerosity and continuous magnitudes.

“From ‘sense of number’ to ‘sense of magnitude’ – The role of continuous magnitudes in numerical cognition” by Tali Leibovich, Naama Katzin, Maayan Harel and Avishai Henik in *Behavioral and Brain Sciences*. Published online August 17 2016 doi:10.1017/S0140525X16000960