Infant prodigies

September 04, 1992

Recent experiments at the University of Arizona that seem to indicate infants as young as 5 months old can add and subtract raise a number of intriguing possibilities.

As recently as 20 years ago, the conventional wisdom was that infants were little more than cuddly newborns who could barely see, hear or feel. The Arizona experiments have exploded that myth, extending the findings of a growing body of work that suggests even very young children possess an amazing range of abilities.

The experiments tested the ability of 48 infants to do simple calculations -- 1 plus 1 and 2 minus 1. In a typical experiment, a baby was shown one Mickey Mouse doll on a table. Then a screen popped up to hide the doll. A hand appeared, and as the baby watched, the hand put a second, identical Mickey behind the screen. When the screen fell, the table contained either two dolls -- the right answer -- or one.

The fact that the babies were able to distinguish wrong answers from correct ones led researchers to infer that they already possessed a rudimentary ability to calculate simple sums. The same thing happened when the babies were shown two Mickeys and then one was taken away, in a simple subtraction.

The experiments did not "prove" that infants are capable of abstract reasoning. But they did offer strong evidence that babies can recognize relationships between numbers and perform simple arithmetic in their heads. If so, it could mean that mathematical ability is an innate characteristic of the human mind -- a discovery that, if confirmed, could have profound implications for early childhood education methods.

When parents start teaching babies numbers, for example, it may not be that they are teaching the concept of quantities, per se, but merely the names for things the baby already knows. Similarly, it may turn out that the way simple arithmetic currently is taught in schools -- through rote memorization and drill -- inhibits, rather than enhances, the innate abilities with which children are born.

In a world where mathematical talent is in increasingly short supply, this is an area that definitely merits additional research.

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