Museum of Science and Industry

Nature vs. Number

By Mark
June 03, 2012

Ever hear someone refer to math as "the universal language?" It seems like a reasonable idea: after all, 2 + 2 = 4 no matter what language you use for those numbers. Yet researchers are starting to find evidence that certain mathematical concepts might not be perceived in the same way by all people.

Researchers from the University of California at San Diego traveled to a remote valley in Papua New Guinea to study the way adults there conceptualize a "number line"—a visual representation of numbers arranged along a line, like a ruler or thermometer. When asked to align the numbers 1 to 10 on a line, unschooled villagers did not evenly distribute the numbers along the entire length of the line. Instead, they grouped the numbers around the end points, separating them by size. This suggests that some aspects of conceptualizing numbers that were once thought to be instinctual are actually culturally inherited.

The villagers also have an unusual concept for describing time spatially: to them, the future is uphill, and the past is downhill. There are lots of cool, new perspectives waiting out there – why not discover some in your own community?

Image: Embodied Cognition Laboratory, UC San Diego

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