by Jim Holt
New Yorker Magazine
According to Stanislas Dehaene, humans have an inbuilt "number sense" capable of some basic calculations and estimates. The problems start when we learn mathematics and have to perform procedures that are anything but instinctive.
One morning in September, 1989, a former sales representative in his mid-forties entered an examination room with Stanislas Dehaene, a young neuroscientist based in Paris. Three years earlier, the man, whom researchers came to refer to as Mr. N, had sustained a brain hemorrhage that left him with an enormous lesion in the rear half of his left hemisphere. He suffered from severe handicaps: his right arm was in a sling; he couldn't read; and his speech was painfully slow. He had once been married, with two daughters, but was now incapable of leading an independent life and lived with his elderly parents. Dehaene had been invited to see him because his impairments included severe acalculia, a general term for any one of several deficits in number processing. When asked to add 2 and 2, he answered "three." He could still count and recite a sequence like 2, 4, 6, 8, but he was incapable of counting downward from 9, differentiating odd and even numbers, or recognizing the numeral 5 when it was flashed in front of him.
To Dehaene, these impairments were less interesting than the fragmentary capabilities Mr. N had managed to retain. When he was shown the numeral 5 for a few seconds, he knew it was a numeral rather than a letter and, by counting up from 1 until he got to the right integer, he eventually identified it as a 5. He did the same thing when asked the age of his seven-year-old daughter. In the 1997 book "The Number Sense," Dehaene wrote, "He appears to know right from the start what quantities he wishes to express, but reciting the number series seems to be his only means of retrieving the corresponding word."
Dehaene also noticed that although Mr. N could no longer read, he sometimes had an approximate sense of words that were flashed in front of him; when he was shown the word "ham" he said, "It's some kind of meat." Dehaene decided to see if Mr. N still had a similar sense of number. He showed him the numerals 7 and 8. Mr. N was able to answer quickly that 8 was the larger number, far more quickly than if he had had to identify them by counting up to the right quantities. He could also judge whether various numbers were bigger or smaller than 55, slipping up only when they were very close to 55. Dehaene dubbed Mr. N "the Approximate Man." The Approximate Man lived in a world where a year comprised "about 350 days" and an hour "about fifty minutes" where there were five seasons, and where a dozen eggs amounted to "six or ten." Dehaene asked him to add 2 and 2 several times and received answers ranging from three to five. But, he noted, "he never offers a result as absurd as 9."
In cognitive science, incidents of brain damage are nature's experiments. If a lesion knocks out one ability but leaves another intact, it is evidence that they are wired into different neural circuits. In this instance, Dehaene theorized that our ability to learn sophisticated mathematical procedures resided in an entirely different part of the brain from a rougher quantitative sense. Over the decades, evidence concerning cognitive deficits in brain-damaged patients has accumulated, and researchers have concluded that we have a sense of number that is independent of language, memory, and reasoning in general. Within neuroscience, numerical cognition has emerged as a vibrant field, and Dehaene, now in his early forties, has become one of its foremost researchers. His work is "completely pioneering" Susan Carey, a psychology professor at Harvard who has studied numerical cognition, told me. "If you want to make sure the math that children are learning is meaningful, you have to know something about how the brain represents number at the kind of level that Stan is trying to understand."
Dehaene has spent most of his career plotting the contours of our number sense and puzzling over which aspects of our mathematical ability are innate and which are learned, and how the two systems overlap and affect each other. He has approached the problem from every imaginable angle. Working with colleagues both in France and in the United States, he has carried out experiments that probe the way numbers are coded in our minds. He has studied the numerical abilities of animals, of Amazon tribespeople, of top French mathematics students. He has used brain-scanning technology to investigate precisely where in the folds and crevices of the cerebral cortex our numerical faculties are nestled. And he has weighed the extent to which some languages make numbers more difficult than others. His work raises crucial issues about the way mathematics is taught. In Dehaene's view, we are all born with an evolutionarily ancient mathematical instinct. To become numerate, children must capitalize on this instinct, but they must also unlearn certain tendencies that were helpful to our primate ancestors but that clash with skills needed today. And some societies are evidently better than others at getting kids to do this. In both France and the United States, mathematics education is often felt to be in a state of crisis. The math skills of American children fare poorly in comparison with those of their peers in countries like Singapore, South Korea, and Japan. Fixing this state of affairs means grappling with the question that has taken up much of Dehaene's career: What is it about the brain that makes numbers sometimes so easy and sometimes so hard?
Dehaene's own gifts as a mathematician are considerable. Born in 1965, he grew up in Roubaix, a medium-sized industrial city near France's border with Belgium. (His surname is Flemish.) His father, a pediatrician, was among the first to study fetal alcohol syndrome. As a teen-ager, Dehaene developed what he calls a "passion" for mathematics, and he attended the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, the training ground for France's scholarly Elite. Dehaene's own interests tended toward computer modelling and artificial intelligence. He was drawn to brain science after reading, at the age of eighteen, the 1983 book "Neuronal Man" by Jean-Pierre Changeux, France's most distinguished neurobiologist. Changeux's approach to the brain held out the tantalizing possibility of reconciling psychology with neuroscience. Dehaene met Changeux and began to work with him on abstract models of thinking and memory. He also linked up with the cognitive scientist Jacques Mehler. It was in Mehler's lab that he met his future wife, Ghislaine Lambertz, a researcher in infant cognitive psychology