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Elizabeth Brannon, an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke, studies how human adults and infants, lemurs and monkeys think about numbers without using language. Her goal is to identify brain systems that support number sense and determine how this cognitive skill develops.

“Number is one of the more abstract domains of cognition: Three coins and three loaves of bread are very different concepts,” Brannon said in a Duke news release. “Yet, many studies show that babies, even in the first year of life, can tell the difference between quantities.”

She’s found that both human infants and macaque monkeys who’ve seen the same number of objects repeated in different-looking sets recognize when there’s a new number of objects. She also found that college students and macaque have similar speed and accuracy when doing a rough sort of math by summing sets of objects without actually counting them.

It might come as no surprise that nonhuman primates have some fundamental sense of numbers.

“There are all sorts of reasons why number would be useful for nonhuman animals in the wild,” Brannon said. “In foraging situations, animals need to make decisions about how long to stay in a given patch of food and when to move on. Territorial animals may need to assess the number of individuals in their own group relative to competing groups to decide whether to stand their ground or retreat.”

Learning more about the biological basis of number sense might help early childhood educators, said Brannon, who’s currently trying to find out how the human brain changes to accommodate symbolism as a child learns the names of numbers and starts to understand more abstract math concepts.

“If the nonverbal number sense is really providing a critical foundation for math achievement, then this will suggest teaching methods that provide more grounding in the nonverbal quantity system,” she said.

Brannon was to appear Friday on a panel at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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