What motivates some people to become mathematicians

This saying is a classic: "I've always been bad at math," say even people with high school diplomas when they just failed on the rule of three. In other words, it is not my fault that I fail, but my genes somehow. A lazy excuse?

Not quite if you follow a study that has now been published by neuroscientists around Ariel Starr from Duke University in the United States Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has been published. Her central insight: "From the babies' intuitive, pre-linguistic sense of numbers, one can infer their mathematical skills in kindergarten." In other words: yes, something is innate there.

It would also be an answer to a topic that has been discussed for a long time: Where do the mathematical abilities of humans come from? Are they primarily a cultural achievement, and how far does biology play a role?

Primitive sense of numbers in animals

After all, we know that many animals have at least a primitive sense of numbers and a feeling for quantities. Such talent has been proven in rats, honey bees, chicks and chimpanzees, among others. However, even the smartest monkey cannot handle symbolic numbers. Only humans understand that five plus three equals eight. In this respect, researchers asked whether the innate sense of numbers is necessarily related to the talent for real mathematics.

In fact, previous studies have shown that students who are good at estimating quantities are also better at math. The causality remained unclear, after all, it could also be the other way round, that the first math lesson sharpened the sense of quantities. The study's authors circumvented precisely this problem by recruiting participants who were not suspect of any previous mathematical education: 48 babies at the age of six months.

These candidates were placed in front of two screens in the laboratory. Black dots flickered on both of them in alternating patterns. The only difference: on one screen only ten dots lit up, on the other the number fluctuated between ten and twenty. At the same time, the direction in which the small subjects were looking was recorded. We now know from many experiments that babies always look where more is happening. Therefore, the researchers concluded that those infants who preferred the screen with the changing number of dots should have the better sense of numbers. Because they had apparently noticed the change in quantity.

Talent and education

Three years later, the researchers invited the same children again to a test round in which various mental abilities were tested. It showed that those who had shown a better sense of numbers in the baby round, now also achieved better results in mathematical tasks.

According to the authors of the study, this is the "first evidence" that numeracy is also innate. But only in part. Factors such as experience, education and motivation continue to be at least as important. Even if you couldn't distinguish two marbles from three as a baby, you should be able to manage at least a rule of three as an adult.