From Our 2012 Archives

Intuitive 'Number Sense' Makes Daily Life Easier

MONDAY, June 25 (HealthDay News) -- People's inborn "number sense" improves during the school years and declines during old age, a new study says.

Number sense is the intuitive ability to assess the number of objects in everyday settings. For example, it helps a late-to-work motorist judge which E-Z Pass lane has the smallest number of cars so that he can be on his way fastest.

Researchers analyzed data from more than 10,000 people, aged 11 to 85, to examine how this "gut sense" for numbers changes during a person's lifetime, said study leader Justin Halberda, a psychologist at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore.

The participants visited a website to play a simple game that tested their number sense and they also provided details about how they did in math during school. The results showed that number sense peaks at about age 30, nearly a decade after other cognitive abilities reach their peak.

"Perhaps most striking to us were the large developmental improvements that we found in people's gut number sense precision -- improvements that continued into the 30s," Halberda said in a Hopkins news release. "Either the maturing brain or the everyday activities people engage in helped improve the precision of their number sense throughout the first three decades of life."

The researchers also found that people's success with math in school influences their number sense for their entire lives.

The study was published online in this week's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The findings suggest that number sense is not set in stone and may be improved by things people do daily, such as deciding which grocery checkout line has the fewest customers, Halberda said.

The fact that this ability can change means it may be possible to develop educational methods to improve people's number sense, he added.

-- Robert Preidt

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SOURCE: Johns Hopkins, news release, June 21, 2012