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Duke professor finds math mysteries in our minds

Elizabeth Brannon in her lab with an infant demonstrating fundamental counting skills.
Elizabeth Brannon in her lab with an infant demonstrating fundamental counting skills. Duke Photography

Among Elizabeth Brannon’s students have been monkeys, lemurs, wee babies and Duke University undergrads. Duke students, the professor of psychology and neuroscience has found, are about as good as their primate cousins in rapidly judging quantities of items.

Brannon’s research, highlighted on the “Nova” episode “The Great Math Mystery,” 9 p.m. Wednesday (UNC-TV, Channel 58; SC ETV, Channel 30), reveals there is something built into our brains that gives us a fundamental understanding of numbers or math.

While tax day may seem like a good time to think about applied math, the study of numbers goes on around us unceasingly in ways we’re barely aware of.

Math has been used since ancient times in engineering the pyramids, the great cathedrals and predicting the movements of the heavens. It was the minds of mathematicians that predicted the Higgs boson, a fundamental particle of physics, long before experiments at the Large Hadron Collider indicated it exists. Said Galileo: “The universe is written in the language of mathematics.”

“Nova” asks whether math is a human invention or the discovery of that language.

“Mathematicians argue about that all the time,” says Brannon, who came to Duke in 2000. She’s long been interested in what kind of mathematical ability humans have before they grow and language emerges.

She believes humans are born with primitive mathematical abilities, but higher symbolic math is probably invented. “Our work shows that some aspect of mathematics is discovered rather than invented.”

In her research, Brannon teaches lemurs to use a touch screen to choose between two pictures with different numbers of items. When they pick the ones with the greater number, they get a reward pellet. Lemurs not only demonstrate an ability to tell the difference, but pick right up where they left off after being separated from the screens for many months.

Lemurs, which are oddly cute as well as gentle, make good subjects because in evolutionary terms, they split with other primates about 60 million years ago, making them one of the most primitive critters in our family.

Babies are tested for their ability to count by watching them look at pictures of objects – they seem drawn to ones with varying numbers.

“We come into the world with a capacity to appreciate numerical aspects of the world around us,” says Brannon. “For animals as well, numbers seem to be important in terms of keeping track of the number of individuals in your social groups, or in foraging to see if this patch is as profitable as that patch.”

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