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One of the longest running debates among philosophers and cognitive scientists alike concerns the nature of the human mind. Are we, echoing Aristotle and John Locke, born with a blank slate on which everything must be written, or do we, shades of Kant and Noam Chomsky, enter this life with our brains “hard-wired” with certain capabilities?
After watching nearly 5,000 babies, Karen Wynn, a professor of psychology, has moved away from the tabula rasa notion. “I guess I’m a closet Kantian,” says Wynn. For the past ten years, she has been asking infants, many of them between the ages of four and six months old, to tell her what they know about that most abstract endeavor, mathematics. The surprising answer is “plenty.”
In numerous studies, Wynn has demonstrated that well before babies can talk or, for that matter, sit up by themselves, they understand the concepts of addition and subtraction, the foundation on which more sophisticated mathematical notions, from balancing a checkbook to tackling topology, will be built.
Researchers have shown that what Wynn calls a “pretty impressive sensitivity to numbers” is present in creatures as diverse as honeybees and chimps. But until the psychologist published a controversial paper titled “Addition and Subtraction by Human Infants” in the journal Nature in 1992, few would have suspected that the ability to do math might be as much a part of our birthright as the sucking reflex.
To uncover these capabilities, Wynn, who came to Yale in 1999 after nine years on the psychology faculty at the University of Arizona, used a technique employed by other researchers examining infant cognition. “Babies tend to look longer at things that are new, unexpected, or surprising to them,” she says. “So we present infants with various situations and record their looking times.”
A typical scenario involves puppets. (Mickey Mouse is a favorite.) On a little stage, a baby sees one puppet. A curtain is drawn, hiding it, while another puppet appears and goes behind the curtain, which is then opened. Sometimes, there are two puppets on stage, but other times, it’s a different number.
“There’s a secret trap door in the stage, so without the baby knowing it, we may insert a third puppet, or take one away,” says Wynn. “We’ve shown that the infants look longer at what they see as an incorrect outcome.”
Researchers call this the “violation of expectations technique,” and for it to work, a baby must come prepackaged with the ability to expect that one and one will be two. “This also works with subtraction,” says Wynn.
So far, the researcher has not uncovered any budding Einsteins. “We’re getting at the fundamental structure of the human mind,” she says. “Science used to think that babies were passive blobs, but we feel our research shows that we’re all born with the innate ability to recognize numbers in our environment and to reason about numbers in certain ways.”
A facility for calculus is, however, a different story.
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