Are math skills genetic?

Research from Johns Hopkins University suggests that some people are naturally good at math, whereas others may never be.

For those who can count very well, there is something vaguely infuriating about doing business with (or even living with) people who can't count past three.

Math, to some, seems so simple, so obvious, that looking at those who struggle with it turns the mathophile into a cruel beast.

Yet new research from Johns Hopkins University suggests that one's abilities at math might entirely be handed down by one's forefathers.

Time Magazine assisted in directing me to this research, which was published in a wonderful magazine called Developmental Science (Sample article: "Preschoolers joke with jokers, but correct foreigners").

The minds at Johns Hopkins decided to test a concept called "number sense" in kids who had yet to have any math lessons. Number sense is the thing we employ when we're sitting at a Florida Marlins home game and wondering if there are 4,320 or 4,750 people in the ballpark. All animals have that number-centric instinct.

Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

Melissa Libertus, one of the brains behind this research, said in a statement about the work: "The relationship between 'number sense' and math ability is important and intriguing because we believe that 'number sense' is universal, whereas math ability has been thought to be highly dependent on culture and language and takes many years to learn."

Yet this study suggested that math ability might be just as innate as number sense. The tests--on 200 four-year-olds--were quite simple. The kids were asked to estimate which group of differently colored dots had more dots. They were also given math and verbal tests.

The conclusions were also simple, if slightly sad. Those kids who had better number sense abilities also showed greater math skills.

As with so much research, though, the study offers as many questions as it appears to answer. Perhaps those kids with a fine number sense simply find math easier. Perhaps number sense remains something that can be taught. As technology demands more participants in order to spread Silicon Valley's righteous hold on the world, it had better be something that can be taught.

Perhaps it would be a relief to those who struggle with math (and with tolerating those who are wonderful at it) to know that there is nothing they can do about it.

Perhaps they could more easily admire mathophiles in the same way that they admire painters, piano players, and Kim Kardashian.

Yet part of the human condition (and the philosophy of Disney movies) consists in believing that you can do anything.

I can count past three. I can count past three. Or, at least, I'll be able to one day.

 

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