Image credit: Rosa Rugani, University of Padova (CC BY 4.0)

Counting chickens

Like humans, newborn chicks associate small numbers with the left and large numbers with the right side.

Jul 18, 2020 · 2 min read

Most of the world modern-day languages are written from left to right — but what about numbers? As it turns out, the majority of people also represent numbers using a ‘mental line’, with smaller numbers on the left and larger numbers on the right. Some researchers argue that this phenomenon results from the way humans learn to read and write: in other words, that it is a by-product of culture, rather than an innate property of the brain.

Recent evidence suggests that newborn infants, as well as certain species of monkeys and birds, also associate smaller numbers with the left and larger numbers with the right side of space. This raises the possibility that human mental number line may stem from an ability that evolved before language, in a common ancestor of humans and other animals. Yet, critics claim that findings in infants and non-human species result from a failure to account for individual biases in responding.

To resolve this controversy, Rugani et al. trained three-day-old domestic chicks to approach a target board sporting five red squares. Chicks were then given the choice to approach two identical boards, which would both show two, five or eight red squares.

Rugani et al. showed that when both boards had two red squares, the chicks tended to approach the left-hand board more often than the right. By contrast, when both boards had eight red squares, the birds approached the right-hand board more often than the left. Importantly, no left-right bias was observed when the number of red squared remained unchanged (five). These results also could not be explained by individual chicks favoring the left or right side.

Instead, the findings suggest that even newborn animals tend to associate numbers with positions on a mental number line. Additional research is needed to determine the role of experience — or culture — in shaping this tendency, and future studies should also examine which brain regions support the association between number and space.

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