Are Some People Just Born with Better Math Skills?

Some people are born with a natural talent for art or music or sports. But can the same be said about certain school subjects, such as math? Are some people simply born with better math skills than others?According to a new study, it appears so. Math ability in pre-school children seems to be strongly linked to an inborn and primitive “number sense.”

This number sense is basic to all animals, not just humans. For instance, creatures who hunt use it to ascertain where they can find and gather the most food or to keep track of the food they do have.

Humans use it daily to estimate the number of people in a meeting or the number of seats available on a bus in a single glance.

This latest study links number sense to formal mathematical ability in children who have not yet received mathematical instruction.

“The relationship between ‘number sense’ and math ability is important and intriguing because we believe that ‘number sense’ is universal, whereas math ability has been thought to be highly dependent on culture and language and takes many years to learn,” said study leader Melissa Libertus.

“Thus, a link between the two is surprising and raises many important questions and issues, including one of the most important ones, which is whether we can train a child’s number sense with an eye to improving his future math ability.”

The study tested 200 pre-school age children on several tasks measuring number sense, mathematical ability and verbal ability. They included verbal tests to ensure that some children were not simply better test-performers in general.

According to the results, the better the children’s number sense (how precisely they could make general estimates), the better they were at formal mathematic problems such as adding or subtracting. This indicates that inborn numerical estimation abilities are in fact linked to achievement, or lack thereof, in school math classes.

“Previous studies testing older children left open the possibility that differences in instructional experience is what caused the difference in their number sense; in other words, that some children tested in middle or high school looked like they had better number sense simply because they had had better math instruction,” Libertus said.

“Unlike those studies, this one shows that the link between ‘number sense’ and math ability is already present before the beginning of formal math instruction.”

Questions still remain regarding the findings. For instance, do children born with better number sense just have an easier time learning mathematical formulas and procedures? Or is it that children born with less accurate number sense simply avoid math-related activities before developing competency?

The most important question, according to Libertus, is whether number sense can be ‘trained’ at a young age, therefore improving later mathematical ability.

The study was published in Developmental Science.