The New Yorker magazine has a profile of Stanislas Dehaene, a French neuroscientist who studies “which aspects of our mathematical ability are innate and which are learned, and how the two systems overlap and affect each other.” A number of fascinating facts that Dehaene (and others) have uncovered are mentioned in the course of the article.

At one time, he posed the question, “How do we know whether numbers are bigger or smaller than one another?” This is what he found:

If you are asked to choose which of a pair of Arabic numerals—4 and 7, say—stands for the bigger number, you respond “seven” in a split second, and one might think that any two digits could be compared in the same very brief period of time. Yet in Dehaene’s experiments, while subjects answered quickly and accurately when the digits were far apart, like 2 and 9, they slowed down when the digits were closer together, like 5 and 6. Performance also got worse as the digits grew larger: 2 and 3 were much easier to compare than 7 and 8. When Dehaene tested some of the best mathematics students at the École Normale, the students were amazed to find themselves slowing down and making errors when asked whether 8 or 9 was the larger number. Dehaene conjectured that, when we see numerals or hear number words, our brains automatically map them onto a number line that grows increasingly fuzzy above 3 or 4. He found that no amount of training can change this.

He offers one explanation for our “innate ineptness” at doing some complex mathematical calculations:

Our number sense endows us with a crude feel for addition, so that, even before schooling, children can find simple recipes for adding numbers. If asked to compute 2 + 4, for example, a child might start with the first number and then count upward by the second number: “two, three is one, four is two, five is three, six is four,

six.” But multiplication is another matter. It is an “unnatural practice,” Dehaene is fond of saying, and the reason is that our brains are wired the wrong way. Neither intuition nor counting is of much use, and multiplication facts must be stored in the brain verbally, as strings of words. The list of arithmetical facts to be memorized may be short, but it is fiendishly tricky: the same numbers occur over and over, in different orders, with partial overlaps and irrelevant rhymes. (Bilinguals, it has been found, revert to the language they used in school when doing multiplication.) The human memory, unlike that of a computer, has evolved to be associative, which makes it ill-suited to arithmetic, where bits of knowledge must be kept from interfering with one another: if you’re trying to retrieve the result of multiplying 7 X 6, the reflex activation of 7 + 6 and 7 X 5 can be disastrous. So multiplication is a double terror: not only is it remote from our intuitive sense of number; it has to be internalized in a form that clashes with the evolved organization of our memory. The result is that when adults multiply single-digit numbers they make mistakes ten to fifteen per cent of the time. For the hardest problems, like 7 X 8, the error rate can exceed twenty-five per cent.

Dehaene believes that “evolution has equipped us with one way of representing number, embodied in the primitive number sense, culture furnishes two more: numerals and number words.” Because of this, he has also studied how different languages affect our ability to process numbers.

Today, Arabic numerals are in use pretty much around the world, while the words with which we name numbers naturally differ from language to language. And, as Dehaene and others have noted, these differences are far from trivial. English is cumbersome. There are special words for the numbers from 11 to 19, and for the decades from 20 to 90. This makes counting a challenge for English-speaking children, who are prone to such errors as “twenty-eight, twenty-nine, twenty-ten, twenty-eleven.” French is just as bad, with vestigial base-twenty monstrosities, like

quatre-vingt-dix-neuf(“four twenty ten nine”) for 99. Chinese, by contrast, is simplicity itself; its number syntax perfectly mirrors the base-ten form of Arabic numerals, with a minimum of terms. Consequently, the average Chinese four-year-old can count up to forty, whereas American children of the same age struggle to get to fifteen. And the advantages extend to adults. Because Chinese number words are so brief—they take less than a quarter of a second to say, on average, compared with a third of a second for English—the average Chinese speaker has a memory span of nine digits, versus seven digits for English speakers. (Speakers of the marvellously efficient Cantonese dialect, common in Hong Kong, can juggle ten digits in active memory.)

Dotmath for kids explains how to know when one number is bigger than another