Mathematical Brain
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Naze sugaku ga tokui na hito to nigate na hito ga 
(Why are some people good, but others bad at maths?)

Mathematical Brain
Brian Butterworth
At-Bristol News Service
Women faster at instant counting

by Emily Singer News Service: 11th September, 2003.

Women are better at instant counting than men, a mass mathematical experiment has revealed.

Over 18,000 people took part in the research, using touch screens inserted among interactive exhibits at a science exhibition in Bristol, UK. The study confirms that the brain has two distinct ways of counting, an idea first proposed 50 years ago.

"If I hold up three fingers, most people don't need to count how many there are," says lead scientist Brian Butterworth, from University of College London. But for more than a handful of objects, the time needed by people for their calculation jumps and increases as more objects are added. This suggests people use two different mechanisms to assess small and large numbers.

But demonstrating that these two processes really are distinct has been a challenge. The approach taken by the UCL researchers was to look for factors that affect one type of counting, but not the other - showing they must each have a different basis.

And they found that women were better at the instant counting - called subitizing - than men, while both were equally good at higher level counting. "The differences were small but significant," says Butterworth.

Reaction time

Visitors to the @Bristol science centre came across the experiment as they walked through a series of interactive exhibits. A touch screen presented them with a view of different numbers of dots and the amount of time to calculate the correct number was measured.

Gender was not the only factor that affected subitizing and higher counting differently. When dots were presented on the left side of the screen, people were six per cent faster than if they were presented on the right, but only if there were five or more dots.

Other researchers presenting research on numeracy at the British Association Festival of Science in Salford, nearManchester, UK, said the experiment was very interesting. But they warned that the results needed to be replicated in a more controlled setting.

"The factor may not be gender," says Stanislas Dehaene, a scientist at INSERM in Paris, France. "It could be that girls going to the museum are better at this than average girls." But existence of a factor - whatever it is - does gives good support to the idea that there are two ways of counting, he says.

Butterworth agrees that more controlled conditions are needed and is planning such experiments. But Dehaene adds: "Doing experiments in a museum is a great idea, as you can get huge groups of subjects."

Other recent research has showed that people who play a lot of video games are also better at instantly identifying the numbers of dots on a screen. The @Bristol science centre is now considering a new experiment/exhibit based on this observation. News Service
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