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This Is Your Brain on Math

Jun 13, 2011

Is it possible that humans have an innate understanding of mathematics? This question has long been debated among academics. Recent research from Paris Descartes University seems to suggest that knowledge of at least some math concepts may be hard-wired into the human brain.

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By Douglas Fehlen

math

A Groundbreaking Study

The Mundurucú tribe is a group indigenous to the Amazon. Isolated from other human populations, the tribe features a culture that is without any formal system of education. Researchers were recently surprised, then, to learn that individuals from the Mundurucú community demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of mathematical concepts in Euclidean planar geometry.

This finding is all the more remarkable given that the Mundurucú have no vocabulary for geometric concepts like points, lines, triangles, angles or planes. Additionally, members of the tribe showed an understanding of abstract concepts they could not have encountered in the real world, including perfect angles and infinite planes. Another surprise to researchers: When geometric concepts were applied to a sphere, the Mundurucú actually performed better on tests than peers in the U.S. and France.

What can be drawn from these findings? Researcher Véronique Izard, a psychologist at Paris Descartes University, believes the study's results point to an innate understanding of geometric concepts. 'I would say that this means Euclidean geometry is probably universal to all human beings,' she said. 'We find people grasping concepts of geometry that go beyond the perceivable.'

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Remaining Questions

But if knowledge of geometric concepts can be thought of as innate, additional questions must be applied to how that understanding reveals itself. For example, is the mathematical knowledge evident within us from birth, or is it something that can only emerge after a certain amount of time? To demonstrate the latter possibility, Véronique Izard draws an analogy to bodily changes that accompany puberty. Biologically our bodies are set up to experience changes from birth, but they are not manifest until adolescence.

Different aspects of the research seem to support this explanation. The study examined Mundurucú seven years of age or older, comparing their comprehension to people in the United States and France. Individuals from the tribe demonstrated knowledge comparable to those in test groups who had formal learning in geometry. When compared to U.S. and French children aged five and six (who lacked that training), people from the Mundurucú tribe performed better.

Researchers say this suggests innate knowledge of geometric concepts may come with human experiences in space, including the ways in which our bodies move. This could explain why the Mundurucú performed better than five- and six-year-old U.S. and French children, still potentially engaged in intuitively learning geometric concepts through their experiences in the physical world.

Want to read more about mathematics? Check out 10 math blogs featuring everything from number puzzles to in-depth analysis of complex theorems.

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