According to lead author Rosa Rugani, a psychologist at Italy’s University of Padova, chicks seem to be born with the ability to sense numbers, and actually “count upward, moving smaller numbers on the left, and larger numbers on the right, the same way humans do.” As a result Ruhani believes “a rethinking of the relationship between numerical abilities and verbal language, providing further evidence that language and culture are not necessary for the development of a mathematical cognition.”
The study also appears to suggest that mental representation of numbers (and spatial mapping) may have developed millions of years ago in a common ancestor to both humans and birds, and leads to the question as to whether the same ability was common in dinosaurs, as well as other animal species, let alone in modern newborn humans.
While most humans learn to place smaller numbers on the left and increasing numbers to the right in math class, “The Number Sense: How the Mind Creates Mathematics” (Oxford University Press, 2011) suggests that the tendency is somehow embedded in people’s pschye’s. However, up until now it was not known whether this is a result of long forgotten teachings, or simply how the brain is wired to process numbers. In seeking the answer to this question, Rugani and her team trained a 3-day old chickens to move around a screen panel with 5 dots on it to find tasty treats behind it, using the 5 dots an “anchor number that they could compare other numbers to.”
“A number is not either small or large in an absolute sense, but rather it is smaller or larger with respect to another number,” she explained during an interview withLive Science.
Once the chicks understood that the 5-dot panel meant food, the scientists took the panel away and put the chicks in front of a pair of panels, each with 2 dots. One panel wasplaced to the left, and the other to the right. Yet, despite having the same amount of dots, the chicks automatically went to the left panel first, giving the scientists to conclude that the birds “mentally represent numbers smaller than 5 as being on the left of 5.” However, when the chicks were them put before 2 panels with 8 dots, they automatically moved to the one on the right, which suggested that the “chicks thought that numbers larger than 5 were mentally to the right of 5.”
To test this further, Rugani conducted a 2nd test repeating the entire process, using 20 dots (in place of 5) and then added 2 other panels that had either 8 or 32 dots. Sure enough, the chicks moved to the left for the 8 dots and the right when they had the 32 dots.
To learn more about her findings, readers can review Rugani’s report in the Jan. 29 edition of the journal Science.