Amazon Children "Spontaneously" Understand Geometry

Davide Castelvecchi
for National Geographic News
January 19, 2006

Children of an isolated Indian group in the Amazon jungle have a seemingly natural understanding of geometry concepts, even though their language doesn't have words for them, according to a new study.

This doesn't necessarily make the children unique, the study authors say. Instead, it may mean that most human brains, regardless of education, are hardwired for a basic level of geometry comprehension.

The Mundurucú people of the Amazon River Basin don't seem to have words for "triangle," "parallel," or other geometry concepts. Even so, they are able to understand these concepts about as well as U.S. schoolchildren.

Given the same geometry exercises, U.S. adults, however, performed slightly better, on average, than Mundurucú adults.

The relatively similar abilities of the two cultures are striking, the authors said, given that the Mundurucú test subjects had received little or no schooling and lived mostly in isolation. (Read an excerpt of a National Geographic magazine article on isolated Amazon Indians.)

"This shows the deep unity underneath superficial differences—the fact that the very same problems that are difficult for the Mundurucú remain difficult for [people from developed regions], even after years of education and with our sophisticated vocabulary," said Stanislas Dehaene, the study's lead author.

The study will be published tomorrow in the journal Science. Dehaene's co-authors are Vronique Izard of the Service Hospitalier Frédéric Joliot research center in Orsay, France; Pierre Pica of the French National Center for Scientific Research in Paris; and Elizabeth Spelke of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The authors plan to follow up with studies of infants and perhaps other animal species. Further studies using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to scan brain activity could also point to the neurological basis of some of the geometry skills.

Which of These Does Not Belong?

Dehaene is a cognitive scientist at the Service Hospitalier Frédéric Joliot research center in Orsay, France. He and his colleagues used two kinds of tests to assess the abilities of Mundurucú adults as well as children between ages 5 and 12.

The first test used visual clues such as parallel lines, curved versus straight lines, and holes.

In a specialized kind of "spot the differences" game, participants were shown sets of six figures.

Continued on Next Page >>


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