Baby Einstein: Tots Can Do Math?

Babies Too Young to Walk Show Early Inkling of Math Skills

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on August 07, 2006
From the WebMD Archives

Aug. 7, 2006 -- A few months after birth, babies may be too young to walk and talk, but math skills may not be out of the question.

Babies who are 6 to 9 months old may have fledgling math skills, spotting math errors in a puppet show.

"These findings show that the brain network involved in error detection can be identified in infancy," write Andrea Berger, PhD, and colleagues.

Berger works in Israel at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. The study appears in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Berger's team isn't suggesting that even the smartest infant is ready for hard-core math. You've got to crawl before you walk with any skill.

But "our data indicate that the basic brain circuitry involved in the detection of errors is already functional before the end of the first year of life," the researchers write.

Good Sports

Berger's team studied 14 baby boys and 10 baby girls aged 6-9 months (average age: 7 months).

Each baby wore a special head net studded with 128 sensors tracking brain activity. Picture 128 little hexagonal sensors on the tots' heads, with a veil of wires trailing down their necks.

The babies wore the head nets in the comfort of their mother's or father's lap. Thirty-three other babies fussed or got too tired for the test; they were sent home.

While wearing the head nets, the babies watched a videotaped puppet show.

First, two puppets appeared and then were hidden by a screen. A hand reached behind the screen and removed a puppet. Lastly, the screen was removed.

Starting with two puppets and taking one away leaves one puppet. But sometimes, an unexpected second puppet was there when the screen was removed.

When that happened, the babies gazed at the screen for a slightly longer time than when only one puppet appeared (slightly over 8 seconds with two puppets; nearly 7 seconds with one).

How Does 2 - 1 = 2?

The one-second time gap isn't huge, but it didn't seem to be due to chance, write Berger and colleagues.

What's more, the babies' brain activity when they saw the wrong number of puppets mirrored adult brain activity in processing errors, the researchers note.

The researchers can't tell what the babies were thinking. It's impossible to know if they consciously thought, "Hey, where did that second puppet come from?"

Babies are too young at 6-9 months of age to correct errors, the researchers note.

But the ability to spot such errors was previously thought to develop later on, at 3 years of age, write Berger and colleagues.

Show Sources

SOURCES: Berger, A. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Aug. 15, 2006; vol 103: pp 12649-12653. News release, University of Oregon. News release, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
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