Study: People May Be Born Good (or Bad) at Math

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If you struggled through high school algebra, you probably thought you simply weren’t born good at math. You might have been right, at least according to a new study by Johns Hopkins University psychologists that suggests that math ability is linked to your inborn “number sense.”

Also known as “approximate number system,” number sense is inherent in all animals including humans. It’s what we use to instantly estimate how many people are in a meeting or how many free seats are in a movie theater. Animals use it to figure out where the most plants or game are and to track how much food they’ve gathered.

Now scientists have measured number sense in preschoolers — who are too young to have received any formal math education — and linked it to performance of tests of math ability. “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,” said study author Melissa Libertus in a statement.

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Past research has associated number sense with math ability in older children, but the Libertus and her team’s study involved 200 younger children with an average age of 4. The children were given number sense test that involved viewing groups of blue and yellow dots on a computer screen and estimating which color group had more dots. (You can take the test here.)

Each child then took math ability tests consisting of numbering skills (verbally counting items on a page), numeral literacy (reading Arabic numbers), calculation skills (solving addition and subtraction problems) and other abilities.

Kids who did better at estimating the dots in the first test also did better at the math tests, the researchers found, suggesting that at least some math ability may be linked to one’s inborn number sense. The study authors also gave the kids tests of general intelligence to rule out the possibility that those who did better on the math tests were simply those who performed well on all tests.

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The authors acknowledge the findings don’t fully explain the link between number sense and math achievement in school. It’s not clear, for example, whether kids with good number sense simply have an easier time learning math and thus do well in school. Or whether children with less-than-impressive number sense simply end up avoiding math-related activities early on, leading to poorer performance in school from lack of practice.

“Many questions remain and there is much we still have to learn about this,” Libertus said.

The researchers hope their findings will be a jumping point for a deeper look into whether training can help kids improve their number sense, and hence their math performance. Helping our kids achieve greater heights in math can only be a good thing — whether or not they were born with the ability.

The study was published in the journal Developmental Science.

Tara Thean is a TIME contributor. Find her on Twitter at @TaraThean. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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