Women "better than men at instant maths"
by David Derbyshire and Roger Highfield
The Daily Telegraph: 11th September, 2003.
Women are quicker than men at carrying out a primitive, "instant judgment"
type of maths, according to the world's largest mathematics experiment.
In the past few years scientists have found that bees, rats, lions, birds
and other creatures can keep track of numbers and work out basic
Now this fundamental skill has been compared among men and women by
@Bristol, the South-West's leading science centre, offering an insight
into why girls tend to do better than boys at arithmetic at primary
school, and why boys are more at risk of dyscalculia, a basic problem with
mathematics akin to dyslexia.
The experiment on 20,000 people was developed by Prof Brian Butterworth
and his team at University College London, in collaboration with Dr Penny
Fidler, @Bristol's neuroscientist.
The new results reveal that the brain has two distinct mechanisms for
doing maths, solving a question that has puzzled scientists since 1949,
said Prof Butterworth.
The first mechanism is the type of instant judgment made when viewing
three coins on a table. The viewer instantly knows that there are three
without counting, an ability most of us were born with. The second type is
the maths people are taught, including counting, addition, subtraction and
Animals also seem to have the first, inate type of mathematical ability.
Prof Butterworth told the meeting that most animals make the following
judgment: "Three bears go into a cave. Two come out. Should I go in?"
There are other key uses - for example when tracking friends, looking
after eggs and foraging.
Thanks to the very large number of people taking part in the experiment,
Prof Butterworth was able to look at overall trends, revealing that women
are quicker than men at instant maths.
The experiment, which involved displays of dots, suggested that there are
really two processes - what is called "subitizing", for instant
recognition, and counting - solving an issue that has raged among
scientists for half a century.
"For one to three dots, but not for four to 10 dots, female subjects were
slightly, but significantly faster than male subjects," said Prof
Butterworth. "They are the same as males on the counting range.
"Because our results suggest that there are sex-linked differences in
subitizing abilities (females are slightly better), the human genome may
code for building a specific neural mechanism for subitizing."