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Is 'Numerosity' Humans' Sixth Sense?

Science & Tech  (tags: Brain, discovery, health, humans, investigation, medicine, NewTechnology, research, scientists, study, technology )

- 1723 days ago -
Whether it's determining the number of ships on the horizon or the number of cookies in a jar, the human brain has a "map" for perceiving numbers, new research shows.

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Kit B (276)
Friday September 6, 2013, 8:10 am
Image/Photo Credit: Andreas Guskos |

Whether it's determining the number of ships on the horizon or the number of cookies in a jar, the human brain has a "map" for perceiving numbers, new research shows.

Topographical maps of the human brain are known to exist for the primary senses, such as sight, hearing and touch, but this is the first time such a map has been found for numerosity, or number sense. The map's layout allows for the most efficient communication among neurons doing similar tasks.

Studies in monkeys have shown that certain neurons in the parietal cortex, located at the back of the brain beneath the crown of the hair, became active when the animals viewed a specific number of items. These studies did not find a map for numerosity, though scientists have long suspected one exists.

"Scientists have suspected an ordered mapping of numbers for a long time," said Andreas Nieder, a neurobiologist at the University of Tübingen in Germany, who was not involved in the study. "Many laboratories have been investigating this idea intensively. Finally, Harvey et al. succeeded in convincingly demonstrating a map of numerical quantity in the human brain," he added, referring to researcher Ben Harvey, a neuroscientist at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

Dots on the mind

In the study, Harvey and his colleagues placed participants in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner and showed them patterns of dots that varied in number over time. They would show one dot over and over, then two dots over and over, then three dots, and so on.

The researchers used an advanced imaging method known as high-field fMRI, which allowed them to see fine-scale details of brain activity. They analyzed the neural responses using techniques similar to those used to study the parts of the brain responsible for vision.

The posterior parietal cortex, responded to the dot patterns in an organized way: Small numbers of dots were represented in one area, whereas large numbers were represented in another, the results showed.

It's as if the brain was acting as an abacus. "In an abacus, you map number onto space," Harvey told Live Science.

The thinking brain

The findings, detailed online today (Sept. 5) in the journal Science, suggest that higher cognitive functions might rely on the same organization principles as sensory systems do. For instance, in face recognition — which is much more complicated than number sense — objects that look similar might be grouped together in the brain, Harvey said.

In these topographical maps, a larger brain area was dedicated to perceiving smaller numbers than to larger ones, in line with previous findings that number sense becomes less precise as the quantity of items increases.

Importantly, numerosity is different from mathematical ability or symbolism. Numerosity only refers to numerical amount.

People vary somewhat in their ability to distinguish numerosity, Harvey said. At the extreme, you have savants — individuals, many of whom have autism or a similar disorder, who possess extraordinary abilities in math, art or other areas. Some savants can look at a pile of pick-up sticks, for example, and instantly know how many there are.

"While there's always this map structure, there's not always the same context," Harvey said.

By: Tanya Lewis | Live Science |


Bob hardly here P (394)
Friday September 6, 2013, 8:34 am
thanks Kit

divergent r (309)
Friday September 6, 2013, 9:13 am
both numerosity and numerology interest me to the square root of my brain
thanks Kit

Kit B (276)
Friday September 6, 2013, 9:17 am

To the 'square root" of you brain, that is funny.

Pogle S (88)
Friday September 6, 2013, 11:35 am
Boggle! :-)

Debra T (17)
Friday September 6, 2013, 1:27 pm
Interesting! Noted!

. (0)
Friday September 6, 2013, 2:03 pm
I have seen this time and again. There is always someome who can tell how may marbles are in a jar (approx.). It has always amazed me.

Lois Jordan (63)
Friday September 6, 2013, 2:25 pm
Noted w/thanks for this interesting info, Kit.

Tamara H (185)
Friday September 6, 2013, 7:30 pm
This really is very interesting. Great read, I tried to use my numerosity map to see how many letters there were in this article but my topographer must be on vacation. Thanks Kit.

Kit B (276)
Friday September 6, 2013, 7:40 pm

You guys have forgotten basic elementary math. Your topographer is on vacation? That's funny!

Lloyd H (46)
Saturday September 7, 2013, 6:28 am
So the human brain has two number places one for 1, 2, 3 ,4 and the other for "many". The last I knew humans grasp 1, 2, 3, 4 as distinct concepts and numbers 5 and over as many that require the conscious use of math and imagination to manipulate. Consider dealing with arrangeing infinte sets in order base on size. And beware topographers they deal with appearance not substance.

Phillipa W (199)
Saturday September 7, 2013, 9:15 am
I very much believe it is. Funny thing is when it comes to senses, however many we humans possess varies depending on which researcher you speak to. At the very least, that figure is 9, with others counting over 20. Many are brain functions which we don't even realise we are carrying out, and seem automatic, but are very complex, such as balance, the ability to perceive our body parts etc, and I firmly believe numerosity is one. It's just such an intrinsic fact. Even babies seem to grasp quantities, and learning how to count is more of a matter of learning the language. Quantities such as "a few" or "many" seem so intrinsic I'm sure it counts as a sense. Great article.

. (0)
Saturday September 7, 2013, 9:50 am
Mored like the cubic root of the brain as it is so much more than three dimensional. It is our preconception and refusal to think outside this box that keeps us enslaved.

Freya H (357)
Saturday September 7, 2013, 11:40 am
Our brains have a lot more potential than we realize. We are just barely beginning to fathom the mysteries of the mind. Especially if we could figure out a way to stimulate our ethical and moral areas of our brains, as well as our "hidden" intelligence, how much better off we all will be!

Roger G (154)
Saturday September 7, 2013, 3:13 pm
noted, thanks

Sheila D (194)
Saturday September 7, 2013, 6:06 pm
What part of the parietal transposes numbers, not letters, when I'm trying to balance my checkbook...I have an accounting degree, never said I could copy numbers.

Past Member (0)
Sunday September 8, 2013, 6:36 am

Bryna P (139)
Sunday September 8, 2013, 12:18 pm
Thank you for the interesting article.

Yvonne White (229)
Sunday September 8, 2013, 2:55 pm
So, are Wall $treet rip-off artists Better or Worse at numerosity, or mathematical ability, or symbolism??? And more importantly, can we hang them for all 3 crimes of ineptitude or negligence or fraud????!!!

pam w (139)
Sunday September 8, 2013, 6:02 pm
Evolution favors those who can count.

marie C (163)
Monday September 9, 2013, 6:11 pm
Thank you for another very interesting article

Craig P (52)
Wednesday September 11, 2013, 5:03 am
Fascinating Kit. Thank-you. This explains why I can remember exactly how many keys are on my key-chain. Now if I could only activate the portion of my brain that would enable me to remember where I left them.
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