Duke University researchers say that basic "number sense" seems to be common to monkeys, babies, and college kids.
The researchers came to this conclusion while studying how human adults and infants, lemurs, and monkeys think about numbers without using language.
Elizabeth Brannon, an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at the university, is looking for the brain systems that support number sense with a view to understanding how this cognitive skill develops.
"Number is one of the more abstract domains of cognition: three coins and three loaves of bread are very different concepts," she said.
"Yet, many studies show that babies, even in the first year of life, can tell the difference between quantities," added the researcher, who appeared on a Friday afternoon panel at the AAAS annual meeting called "Comparative Cognition: The Science of Mental Evolution".
She revealed that she tested 500 babies per year through her testing lab at Duke, as well as macaques, lemurs and the odd undergraduate.
Computer touch-screens and sets of brightly colored dots were used in most of the experiments, she said.
Elizabeth said that after seeing the same number of objects repeated in different-looking sets, both infants and macaques could recognize the novelty of a new number of objects.
She pointed out that both college kids and macaques could do a rough sort of maths by summing sets of objects without actually counting them, and that their speed and accuracy were about the same.
She said that the finding that the evolved brain has some fundamental sense of number without language was a bit surprising.
"There are all sorts of reasons why number would be useful for non-human animals in the wild. In foraging situations animals need to make decisions about how long to stay in a given patch of food and when to move on. Territorial animals may need to assess the number of individuals in their own group relative to competing groups to decide whether to stand their ground or retreat," she said.
Elizabeth believes that understanding the biological basis of our number sense might also help early childhood educators.
She revealed that her study was targeted at finding out how the human brain changes to accommodate symbolism as a child learns the names of numbers and begins to grasp more abstract manipulations.
"If the nonverbal number sense is really providing a critical foundation for math achievement, then this will suggest teaching methods that provide more grounding in the nonverbal quantity system," she said.