An innovative study just published in the open-access science journal PLoS Biology provides intriguing evidence that the brain dedicates a region to understanding maths by as early as four years-old.
In most conditions, the number of shapes and the type of the shapes stayed the same, so participants mostly saw pictures of 16 circles.
On rare occasions, the circles were replaced by squares or triangles, or alternatively, the number of shapes doubled to 32. This last condition was crucial, because it represented a change in the number of shapes presented on screen.
Most other things that could have caused a brain response were controlled for, so a change of brain activation here should indicate a neural response linked to detecting a change in number.
In this condition, both adults and four-year olds showed activation in an area called the intraparietal sulcus, part of the parietal lobe.
This area is known to be particularly involved in sophisticated number processing in adults using Arabic numerals (what we would normally think of as ‘maths’), which suggests that this ability may be based on a very early mechanism for dealing with counting and numbers.
Interestingly, children showed this activation largely on the right hand side of the brain, whereas adults showed similar activation on both sides.
Cantlon and her team suggest that this is because basic number ability becomes more complex as we learn to do symbolic mathematical operations during and after school, which the pre-school children in the study were unable to do.