Babies May Understand Numbers Hours After They're Born, New Research Says

In the past, the minds of infants have been a complete mystery. How much they comprehend and how much knowledge is inherent is still unknown, but with advances in technology, researchers have been able to reveal some of what is going on in those adorable little brains. In fact, new research says that babies understand numbers as early as hours after they're born.

While not quite ready for calculus, a new study found that newborns may be able to associate the concept of "few" with "left" and "many" with "right," suggesting that the bias for mapping from left to right is something that humans are born with, according to Science. To come to this conclusion, the study, out of Paris Descartes University, examined 80 newborns under 45 hours old. Lead researcher, psychologist Maria Dolores de Hevia, asked parents to donate a little of their child's time in the name of science.

In order to uncover the inner workings of the infant mind, researchers in the study, published in Current Biology, used a series of audio-visual tests. The tests included sound clips of repeating syllables such as "ba" or "ta." Some infants heard six clips and others heard 18 and researchers associated the number of syllables with "few" and "many." They then showed the babies rectangles of different sizes on a tablet, with infants who heard six syllables seeing a short rectangle and those who heard 18 seeing a larger one.

Roughly 60 seconds later, the babies were then exposed to the sound clip that they hadn't heard yet. Those who first heard six syllables next heard 18 and were given a choice: two long rectangles, one on the right and one on the left. Researchers and volunteers waited to see where the infants would focus. They believed that if the babies' eyes settled on the right-hand triangle for longer, they were associating more (because of the new longer sound clip of 18 syllables) with the right. Inversely, babies who first heard the 18-syllable clip and then the six syllables were given an opposite setup, and researchers hypothesized that they would associate "fewer" with the left side.

Ultimatelt, as the researchers found, their hypothesis was supported by the results. De Hevia and her team repeated the experiment numerous times with different babies, testing different variables each time, and the initial results held up. However, when the babies heard just long and short tones instead of audibly separated syllables, they made no distinction. These findings led researchers to believe that they were counting the number of syllables and mapping them from left to right.

De Hevia told Science that she expected the hypothesis to be supported, but parents were pleasantly surprised by their babies. “It is a magic moment in which parents are aware for the first time of how receptive and attentive their newborn can be,” she told the publication.

Number mapping isn't the only thing that babies are born knowing. Newborns are also believed to understand some of the basic laws of physics, according to The Guardian. They appear confused when they see a car move through a solid wall, for example.

While De Hevia's study is not conclusive proof that babies come out knowing how to count, it does suggest that they gain a basic understanding of their surrounding early on. In order to gain a better understanding of babies' minds, more research must be done into the ways in which they view and process the world. Unfortunately, University College London researcher Zita Patai told The Guardian that it isn't a popular field of study:

Lots of people don't like working with babies because it's super difficult. With adults, you can just ask them questions. With animals, you can make them do things. Not with babies.

Hopefully successful, revealing studies such as this will lead more researchers to delve into the inner worlds of little ones. Until then, it's nice to know that babies are soaking in more than they seem.

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