In experiments, 5-year-olds, who had no real experience using number symbols, “added” two arrays of dots and compared them to a third array. When researchers replaced the third array of dots with beeps, the kids integrated the sight and sound quantities easily.

The children performed all these tasks successfully, without actual counting or having any knowledge of number symbols, notes Elizabeth Spelke, a professor of psychology who led the study.

Last year, Spelke and her colleagues reported on experiments with 5-month-old infants, which support the idea that thinking shapes language rather than the other way around. “Infants are born with a language-independent system for thinking about objects,” Spelke concluded. “These intuitive concepts give meaning to the words they learn later.” Her new findings suggest that the same can be said for numbers. Inborn intuition gives meaning to number symbols that kids learn later.

“This is a surprising finding, given that many school-age children have considerable difficulty learning symbolic arithmetic,” Spelke comments. “Our results offer the promise that new strategies in elementary education may be devised: strategies that harness children’s pre-existing arithmetic intuitions to foster the acquisition of knowledge about symbolic numbers and operations.”

Spelke reports details of these arithmetic experiments in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, along with colleagues Hilary Barth, Kristen La Mont, and Jennifer Lipton.