Born to calculate? Innate mathematical skills and their evidences

Born to calculate? Innate mathematical skills and their evidences

Is it possible that the child has mathematical skills of innate origin well before going to school? What if the baby is already capable of interpreting reality through numbers?


Advertising message Mathematics accompanies the individual throughout his life, presenting himself, however, in different forms and ways. For many years, it was believed that the first encounter that the child had with mathematics was among the school desks, where he is actually placed in the conditions of experimenting and knowing the world of calculus and its complexity.

But what if the child had, long before going to school, mathematical skills of innate origin? If the infant was already able to interpret reality through numbers?

This is what Butterworth claimed (1999, 2005) elaborating the innatist thesis of the “mathematical brain” in which he affirms that some mathematical abilities would be present from birth. In his studies, in fact, the author defines “Numerical module” that nucleus of innate abilities through which the world is perceived, in a fast and automatic way, in numerical terms. By explaining, for example, that the individual would be able to recognize the difference between two sets that present a different number of objects without being taught this. Even infants in the first days of life would be able to discriminate between sets of 2 or 3 elements (Antell and Keating, 1983).

Further studies have shown the presence of other innate and preverbal skills, such as “subitizing”, or immediateization. The latter consists of a specialized process of visual perception that allows you to grasp the numerical dimension of a set of up to four elements immediately, without any need to count (Atkinson, Campbell and Francis, 1976).

Furthermore, the innate ability of the child to have numerical expectations on the possible variations of objects due to their subtraction or addition within a set emerges (Lucangeli, Iannitti, Vettore, 2007). According to Wynn (1992), this would be possible already at the age of 5 or 6 months.

Advertising message In light of what has been said, numerical intelligence is considered the innate ability that each individual has to think and understand reality in terms of numbers and quantities (Lucangeli et al., 2007). Like any other skill, it needs to be trained and refined through education which allows the development of increasingly complex calculations and their application in practical contexts. In this sense, learning to count represents the first encounter between nature and culture where the former provides general (such as short-term memory and spatial skills) and specifically mathematical skills, while the latter offers shared cultural tools (e.g. numerical symbols).

From these studies new reflections arise: can we therefore consider children as little mathematicians and enhance their skills before entering school? If there is an innate predisposition to calculation, how can the interindividual differences in mathematical tasks be explained?

Compared to the first question, it is possible to enhance the mathematical skills of a preschooler by adapting the level of difficulty to his real possibilities. Too sophisticated tasks would not produce any enhancement, excessively simple tasks would not be interesting in the eyes of a child. It would therefore be necessary to use means which stimulate interest and which favor the development of these skills.

Compared to the second question, Butterworth explains that the interindividual differences found in mathematical tasks can be attributed to the effects of learning and culture since both the presence of specialized brain structures and the innate predisposition to mathematically interpret reality are common to all individuals . Certainly, however, it is necessary to take into account the presence of numerous other variables (anxiety, short-term memory, difficulty of the task, continuous exercise, etc …) which together determine performance differences.