The curious case of quantity: Evolution, culture, and short-term memory

with Dr. Ian Lyon

Wednesday, April 1, 2020 12:00 PM to 1:00 PM
Online Location

Join us this Wednesday, April 1st, at noon for a virtual ADP colloquia presentation with Dr. Ian Lyons from Georgetown University at this link. Please join us for a talk on “The curious case of quantity: Evolution, development, culture, and short-term memory." Abstract below.


Modern humans are around 75,000 to 150,000 years old. Written mathematical systems are only about 6,000 to 7,000 years old. Less than 1% of the population could do even basic sums until a little over a century ago. And yet today, the vast majority of children recapitulate several millennia of mathematical invention and history in a little over a decade. Perhaps most astonishingly, most of these children mostly succeed in that task. Understanding how the contemporary human mind/brain does math is thus an exercise in understanding the complex interplay between biology and culture that reflects millennia of gradual change condensed into a short segment of a single human lifetime. I will provide a brief background on what we know about the biological roots of numerical cognition. I will then present recent behavioral and neural evidence from our lab examining the interplay between various cultural, biological and developmental factors in the development of numerical thinking. A key takeaway from this evidence, I will argue, is that acquiring culturally invented systems for representing numbers exerts a greater influence on evolutionarily ancient mechanisms for processing perceptual magnitudes than the other way around. Finally, I will link these findings to tentative implications for school readiness and early mathematical education.