Psychological Experiments – Can 5-Month-Old Babies Do Math?
Can babies do math? Human infants are utterly fascinating. Although they are incredibly helpless and incapable of just about everything, at the same time, if you know how to look for it, they are clearly aware and thinking about the world around them.
In a study reported in the New York Times in 1992, an experimenter demonstrated that 5-month-old babies are capable of simple addition and subtraction. In other words, she claimed that babies do math indeed. If it was one study that never repeated again successfully, we wouldn’t have mentioned it here today. In general, when you read about science, you should only have substantial fate and result of some study if it has been repeated several times by different research groups, in different locations, with different sets of kids. This particular study absolutely fits that definition. It has since been replicated in dozens of experiments in laboratories all over the world and the basic findings have continued to hold true.
Procedure – Babies Do Math
The study procedure involved a baby in a comfortable seat looking at a small stage. On that stage was a Mickey Mouse doll. After a few seconds to allow the baby to look at the doll, a curtain blocked the baby’s view of the doll. You can’t see the stage anymore, right? But you know what is back there; a Mickey doll. Does the baby know that? We can’t know yet.
Then, a hand reaches out from the side of the display; the hand is holding a Mickey Mouse doll. After the baby has a few seconds to look at this, the hand moves slowly to place the second doll next to the first one. After a few seconds the hand moves empty and allows the infant to see that. Then the curtain is then raised so that the baby could see the stage again. What can you see now? You know of course, there are two Mickey dolls in full view. Does the infant know that? We still don’t know that yet.
The curtain was then lowered to hide the entire stage, and the process was repeated, except in this round, only one Mickey doll was revealed at the end.
If you saw this as an adult, you would realize right away that something strange had just happened. The experimenters seem to have performed a magic trick: They have made a Mickey Mouse doll vanish into thin air. An adult would react with surprise and would look around the stage to try to find the missing Mickey doll.
The same is true of children, even very young infants. In this experiment, the infants looked consistently longer at the outcome with only one Mickey doll than at the outcome with two. It seems that they know that one plus one is two.
The question is: What is going on in the infant’s mind? Perhaps infants have a sort of mental pointer that they direct at objects. When the objects disappear from view, the pointer keeps track of their approximate location. If when the occlude panel is removed there are more mental pointers than objects, that might attract the infant’s attention. Alternatively, a new object that doesn’t have a pointer attached to it might also attract extra attention.
Conclusion – Babies Do Math
Although it’s not clear that infants can really do math, in an abstract, symbolic way, there seems to be a lot going on for the infants to act as they do. They must be able to see the objects and then remember them after they can no longer see them. They must be able to compare the things they remember to the things they later see. And they must be able to notice when the memory doesn’t match what they see. Finally, their behavior must be influenced by this difference in a consistent fashion.
1- Repeated experiments have demonstrated that babies reason about a lot more than math. For example, if a set of displays seems to indicate that two solid objects have passed through each other, even babies younger than 4 months will look longer. Babies seem to know something about the physics of solid objects.
2- If a baby sees an object pushed off a shelf, and that object simply hangs in midair without falling down, 5-month-olds look longer relative to baseline preferences. Babies seem to know something about the physics of gravity.
3- If babies see images of a male face and a female face and they then hear the sounds of a female speaking, they look longer at the female face than the male face. If they hear a male voice, then they look at the male face. Babies seem to know something about the types of sounds that go with certain types of images.
4- If an infant sees a ball roll across a stage and bump into another ball, causing that second ball to move, they will look at it for a certain period of time. If the first ball stops short of the second ball, but the second ball is launched anyway, infants look significantly longer. It seems that babies know something about inertia and causation.
In conclusion, studies suggest that infants can reason about math, physics, voices and causation. They can do these things from the time that they are very young, perhaps even from the time they are born.
Keep in mind that your baby is watching, listening and making sense of things a lot. Your interaction with your baby will be best if you structure them with that idea in mind. If you want to enrich your child environment a great deal, spend some time on a regular basis giving them opportunities to interact with the surrounding world and with you.
And most importantly, don’t forget to have fun with your baby 🙂
 Professor Karen Wynn (1992)
 Professor Peter M. Vishton, The College of William & Mary