The Number Sense

The Number Sense: How the Mind Creates Mathematics ( 1999 ) by Stanislas Dehaene is an interesting book that looks at how numbers are part of the structure of the brian in mammls, how numeracy develops in infants and the implications of neurology on math. The book predates Reading in the Brain .

The book first looks at animal brains and first goes through the falsely attributed skills of numeracy attributed to various horses and dogs that respond to subtle cues from humans. Then the real counting abilities of rats, pigeons and other animals are investigated and the neuronal mechanisms that lead to such counting described.

Dehaene then talks about babies abilities to count which were thought not to exists but that have later been shown to have some power.  The adult number sense is then looked at and the way that numerals are expressed in different languages compared. Simpler descriptions for numbers, such as four ten rather than something specific are shown to be quicker for children to learn.

The ability to calculate in children is discussed with various alternatives explored. Then prodigious natural calculators and autistic subjects and their abilities are described.

In the final part of the book PET scans and other modern methods for investigating numeracy are examined and their implications strung out. The various parts of the brain that specialise in different parts of calculation are identified. The way that humans calculate is contrasted to the way in which computers perform the task. Finally higher mathematics is brought into the picture and Dehaene presents his view that mathematics is not a platonist discovery or  constructovist but that it is the product defined by our brains with their numeric representations that have evolved in response to observation and interaction with the world.

The book is fairly, short, sharp intense read that goes through a lot of science clearly and carefully. It’s interesting, fun and informative to read.

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