Women faster at instant counting
by Emily Singer
NewScientist.com 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.
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.