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No. 138: NOV-DEC 2001

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Born To Enumerate

Einstein once said in connection with his celebrated mathematical insights:

Words and language...do not seem to play any part in my thought processes.

A French scientist, S. Dehaene, sees in this declaration support for his claim that human brains possess a "number sense" that is independent of language and symbols, including even the numerals we use in arithmetic! The numerals, says Dehaene, are needed only in "exact arithmetic," which is a cultural invention and unrelated to the "number sense." Exact arithmetic, in fact, is an activity of our left brain where language is processed. Our general number sense, though, is sited elsewhere; the parietal lobe, to be specific.

Dehaene's experiments with babies demonstrate that, even before they can speak or do exact arithmetic, they can do "approximate arithmetic"; that is, they can distinguish between these two sequences of tones:

beep-beep, beep-beep, beep-beep
beep-beep, beep-beep, beep-beep-beep.

This number sense is apparently hardwired in a specific part of the human brain and the brains of a few other animals that have been tested (monkeys and rats).

(Baiter, Michael; "What Makes the Mind Dance and Count?" Science, 292:1635, 2001.)

Comment. Superficially, distinguishing between strings of beeps would appear to be a trivial phenomenon. Not so!

The general number sense defined by Dehaene would seem to have significant survival value, say, as in assessing threats or hunting opportunities. We can, therefore, conceive a neo-Darwinian evolutionary scenario here. But when it comes to the number sense at Einstein's level, we fail to detect any survival value in the ability to develop the abstruse equations of relativity until, say, the advent of tenured positions in universities.

From Science Frontiers #138, NOV-DEC 2001. 2001 William R. Corliss

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