Our understanding of how the human brain performs mathematical calculations is far from complete. But in recent years there have been many exciting scientific discoveries, some aided by new imaging techniqueswhich allow us for the first time to watch the living mind at workand others by ingenious experiments conducted by researchers all over the world. There are still perplexing mysterieshow, for instance, do idiot savants perform almost miraculous mathematical feats?but the picture is growing steadily clearer. In The Number Sense, Stanislas Dehaene offers general readers a first look at these recent stunning discoveries, in an enlightening exploration of the mathematical mind.
Dehaene, a mathematician turned cognitive neuropsychologist, begins with the eye-opening discovery that animalsincluding rats, pigeons, raccoons, and chimpanzeescan perform simple mathematical calculations, and he describes ingenious experiments that show that human infants also have a rudimentary number sense (American scientist Karen Wynn, for instance, using just a few Mickey Mouse toys and a small puppet theater, proved that five-month-old infants already have the ability to add and subtract). Further, Dehaene suggests that this rudimentary number sense is as basic to the way the brain understands the world as our perception of color or of objects in space, and, like these other abilities, our number sense is wired into the brain. But how then did the brain leap from this basic number ability to trigonometry, calculus, and beyond? Dehaene shows that it was the invention of symbolic systems of numerals that started us on the climb to higher mathematics, and in a marvelous chapter he traces the history of numbers, from early times when people indicated a number by pointing to a part of their body (even today, in many societies in New Guinea, the word for six is "wrist"), to early abstract numbers such as Roman numerals (chosen for the ease with which they could be carved into wooden sticks), to modern numbers. On our way, we also discover many fascinating facts: for example, because Chinese names for numbers are so short, Chinese people can remember up to nine or ten digits at a timeEnglish-speaking people can only remember seven. Dehaene also explores the unique abilities of idiot savants and mathematical geniuses, asking what might explain their special mathematical talent. And we meet people whose minute brain lesions render their mathematical ability uselessone man, in fact, who is certain that two and two is three. Using modern imaging techniques (PET scans and MRI), Dehaene reveals exactly where in the brain numerical calculation takes place. But perhaps most important, The Number Sense reaches many provocative conclusions that will intrigue anyone interested in mathematics or the mind. Dehaene argues, for instance, that many of the difficulties that children face when learning math, and which may turn into a full-blown adult "innumeracy," stem from the architecture of our primate brain, which has not evolved for the purpose of doing mathematics. He also shows why the human brain does not work like a computer, and that the physical world is not based on mathematicsrather, mathematics evolved to explain the physical world the way that the eye evolved to provide sight.
A truly fascinating look at the crossroads where numbers and neurons intersect, The Number Sense offers an intriguing tour of how the structure of the brain shapes our mathematical abilities, and how our mathematics opens up a window on the human mind.