Sixth Sense? Humans Have 'Number Sense' to Identify Quantities: Experts

Monday, 09 Sep 2013 04:18 PM

By Clyde Hughes

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Doctors say humans may have a sixth sense, the ability to count the number of objects quickly, like Dustin Hoffman's character in the movie "Rain Man."

National Public Radio reported that scientists have found a region of the brain that quickly senses quantities. "Number sense" occurs in a small patch of neurons just above each ear that allows people to say at a glance roughly how many objects there are.

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"When we see a small number of items visually, we don't need to count them," Ben Harvey, of Utrecht University in the Netherlands, told NPR.com. "We just know how many there are straight away."

However, Harvey said most people hit their limit at five items. After five, people get less and less accurate in estimating quantities.

Some people can master the skill beyond five items. People who typically do well on standardized math tests are better at estimating greater quantities.

Harvey told LiveScience.com there are savants, individuals who have autism or a similar disorder, who possess extraordinary abilities in math, art, or other areas and can look at a pile of pick-up sticks and instantly know how many there are.

"This part of the brain — and the ones nearby — is active when you do math and solve equations, as well," Harvey said.

Harvey and his team placed participants in a magnetic resonance imaging scanner and showed them patterns of dots that varied in number. The researchers used an advanced imaging method known as high-field fMRI, which allowed them to see fine-scale details of brain activity.

What they found was the posterior parietal cortex responded to the dot patterns in an organized way, with the small numbers of dots being represented in one area, whereas the large numbers were represented in another, according to LiveScience.com.

"Scientists have suspected an ordered mapping of numbers for a long time," Andreas Nieder, a neurobiologist at the University of TĂĽbingen in Germany said. "Finally, Harvey et al. succeeded in convincingly demonstrating a map of numerical quantity in the human brain."

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