numbers numbers We may not be born with a 'sense of numbers.' (Photo: ImageFlow / Shutterstock)

Why we're not wired for numbers

A new study found that people don't seem to have great natural counting skills.

We've all heard that some humans are born with innate math skills. We have numbers wired into our brains, the common wisdom goes, and that's why we're so great at coming up with physics theories, planning budgets and knowing how many pushups we just did.

But a new study may throw a wrench into that idea. Researchers from Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Israel and University of Western Ontario in Canada found that humans aren't so great at dealing with numbers after all, even very simple numbers.

When you go grocery shopping, it makes sense to stand in line behind people who have few items in their carts. Logically, that means shoppers should pay more attention to the number of items, rather than the size of those items.

But in this new experiment, participants were shown grocery carts and asked to estimate how many items were in them. The participants, as it turned out, paid attention not just to the quantity of items, but to how big the items were.

Even though it makes more sense to stand in line behind someone with a few big items than someone with lots of little items, plenty of people do the opposite, a phenomenon a lot of us probably remember from making the wrong call and getting stuck in line for half an hour. We apparently don't understand numbers as well as we'd like.

This could change the way we teach math. After all, if we think that everyone is born with innate math skills, then it makes sense to just assume we all naturally understand numbers. But if we admit that we're not the baby geniuses we think we are, then we might develop new ways to teach kids about numbers, ways that make more sense for our brains as they are, rather than our brains as we imagine them to be.

“If we are able to understand how the brain learns math, and how it understands the concept of numbers and more complex math concepts that shape the world we live in, we will be able to teach math in a more intuitive and enjoyable way," explained Dr. Tali Leibovich, one of the researchers. "The current study is the first step in achieving this goal."

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Why we're not wired for numbers
A new study found that people don't seem to have great natural counting skills.