We’re only able to mentally represent an exact number if we have a word for it

Babies, monkeys and even bees have a basic “sense of number”. They can instantly perceive that there are one, two, three or four objects in a pile, without having to count them. They can also tell at a glance that a pile of 50 objects contains more than a pile of 20, say. But what explains the unique ability of older kids and adults to go far beyond this, and mentally represent quantities much bigger than four exactly? Some researchers argue that language must be key — that learning to count “one”, “two”, “three”, and on and on, enables this cognitive feat. Others argue that language can’t be fundamental to this “numerical” ability. 

Now a striking new study in Psychological Science by Benjamin Pitt at the University of California, Berkeley, and colleagues comes down firmly on the side of language as being key. And this has a broader significance. It supports the hotly contested idea that language itself influences or even enables abilities that have been viewed as being completely independent — such as colour perception, or, in this case, understanding of number. Continue reading →

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