A study out of the University of Missouri has found that while adult brains have two different mechanisms by which they process information, brains of infants haven’t developed the means to make both of these processes work together. When choosing between two groups of food items, if both groups contained fewer or more than four objects, infants chose the larger group, similarly to adults. But when shown two groups, of one object each, infants didn’t choose based on size.
“This research was the first to show the inability of infants in a single age group to discriminate large and small sets in a single task,” said Kristy vanMarle, assistant professor of psychological sciences in the College of Arts and Science. “Understanding how infants develop the ability to represent and compare numbers could be used to improve early education programs.”
The results indicate that infants aren’t able to estimate the number of items in a group and use that information to visually track sets of objects.
In vanMarle’s study, 10- to 12-month-old infants were presented with two opaque cups. Different numbers of pieces of breakfast cereal were hidden in each cup, while the infants observed, and then the infants were allowed to choose a cup. Four comparisons were tested between different combinations of large and small sets. Infants consistently chose two food items over one and eight items over four, but chose randomly when asked to compare two versus four and two versus eight.
Some species, especially those that hunt and travel in pack, develop an evolutionary advantage from being able to visually estimate a number of members on a group or a number of number of object in a collection. Animals like fish, monkeys and birds have shown to develop this ability very early in their lifecycle.
Ability to judge which object is smaller when compared to another seems to be an something the kids develop before the age of two. But numerical comparisons, i.e. that a group of four is larger than a group of two, aren’t learned until later.
In light of the new findings, VanMarle believes that any programs on the market hoping to teach infants arithmetic before the age of two are ineffective since the children’s brain aren’t yet. capable of counting
“In the modern world there are educational programs that claim to give children an advantage by teaching them arithmetic at an early age,” said vanMarle. “This research suggests that such programs may be ineffective simply because infants are unable to compare some numbers with others.”