A basic form of numeracy is shared by countless creatures

A basic form of numeracy is shared by countless creatures

Brian Butterworth writes:

You might think of counting as something that people do involving the words one, two, three and so on. But we don’t require the use of these words to enumerate a collection of objects. Indeed, some languages do not have long lists of counting words. In studies of children who speak languages with a smaller set of such words (eg, words for onetwofew and many), such as the Indigenous Australian language Warlpiri, my colleagues and I found that they were at least as accurate as English-speaking children in assessing the number of objects in collections of up to 10. Jean Piaget, the influential Swiss developmentalist, argued that, as children, we arrive at what he called ‘the conception of number’ without recourse to counting words.

Indeed, people see the world numerically: typically, one can’t help but notice the number of cups on the table, even if one is not consciously counting them. In fact, we and other researchers have demonstrated experimentally that the number of a small amount of objects can be registered in the brain without conscious awareness, as indicated by its effect on a subsequent, conscious counting task.

Our non-linguistic sense of number implies that nonhuman animals can also, in principle, mentally represent the number of objects in a collection – and researchers have been building a growing body of evidence of the ways in which this actually happens. As we will see, there are many reasons why a sense of number might be advantageous in animals’ struggles to survive and reproduce. [Continue reading…]

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