New studies show that young chicks learn spatial dimensions – left and right – just like humans. Typically, when people think about numbers, they envision numbers in ascending order from left to right, or lower numbers on the left and the higher values on the right. This characteristic is known as a mental number line. It is a trait even seen in infants that are only a few months old. Though, newfound evidence suggests that this concept exists in other species other than humans.
An Italian research team is led to believe that newborn chicks are more in common with humans than what was previously thought. Scientists have known that adult birds happen to grasp the concept of spatial numbering. Though, the youth of the bird species does the same thing backwards. Chicks tend to map numbers from right to left in descending order.
On January 30th, the journal Science published a new study on this matter. A researcher from the University of Padova, at the Department of General Psychology, Rosa Rugani, trained three-day old chicks along with a team to better understand this characteristic. Rugani and her colleagues used treats behind cards with printed dots showing numeric values.
The research team began by showing the chicks one card that had five dots printed on it. They then placed the chicks in different setups so they had the option to choose between two different cards that had different numbers of dots. These cards were printed with different numbers of dots but not the number five. The two cards would have the exact same numbers of dots painted in red. As well, they would be printed sometimes with eight dots.
The team observed that the chicks tended to go to the card on the left if it had two dots and prospected to walk to the right selection of card if they had eight dots painted on them. Therefore, young birds associate smaller numbers on the left and larger numbers on the right. This is just how human infants act when learning numbers through spatial recognition.
The conclusion of the experiment suggests that a chick’s tendency to spatially map a single number from left to right goes back millions of years before number concepts even existed. Similar experiments conducted regarding humans have shown that a person with a damaged right hemisphere in their brain had much difficulty categorizing whether a number was larger or smaller than another. For example, one would see the number five and would have difficulty determining if that number was higher or lower than the number three. Scientists stated that this concept indicated that numerical counting is a much more primitive skill than language to be processed in the brain.
University of California researcher, Tyler Marghetis, explained that humans have brains that evolved for the premise of finding and fighting for food and other sustenance, not for doing advanced mathematical calculations. Therefore, if scientists can understand the way in which chicks learn how to spatially map numbers, it will explain the more primitive parts of the brain and the parts in which we have access to for improving them.
By: Alex Lemieux
Picture: Open Gate Farms – Flickr License