A new study has found that baby chickens understand the concept of numbers in a way similar to humans. Just as we do, these animals also associate low number with left and high number with right. When people are asked to picture the numbers from 1 to 10, a straight line is imagined by most them with number 1 at left end and number 10 at right. Scientists call it “mental number line” and this spatial representation is very consistent among humans. However, Italian researchers have now discovered that the same pattern is also followed by newborn chicks to map the number spatially. The study has been detailed in the journal Science.
Lead study author and University of Padova (Italy) psychologist Rosa Rugani said “The predisposition to map numbers onto space appears to be embedded in the architecture of the animal brain. They appear to originate in biology and not through language or culture.” Rugani further explained “We tested chicks just three days old, so we cannot say the spatial numerical association is innate or inborn, but it is precociously available soon after birth. I would not be surprise if we find similar spatial mapping in other animals and newborn infants.”
According to the researchers, the phenomenon is possibly associated with the hemispherical asymmetry of the animal brain. Previous studies have proved that majority of the visual and spatial processing is done by the right hemisphere. It also does most of the numerical and quantitative information processing. Researchers elaborated that due to the dominance of right hemisphere the left side of the space remains in focus. This is probably the reason behind the left-to-right orientation in processing of numbers.
Rugani also stated that “We cannot think of any other, and simpler, explanation for the behavior of the chicks than assuming the training number is 1) remembered and 2) compared with the number seen at test. All we can judge is behavioral responses. Therefore, we don’t actually know if it is a real ‘number line’ but it strongly resembles what is observed in the human number line.”
The finding is quite interesting as it provides an insight into the similar functions of animal brains. University of California-San Francisco psychology doctoral candidate Tyler Maghetis said “We have brains that evolved for fighting and finding food, not for doing calculus. So one of the hopes of this kind of research is that it will tell us something about the basic building blocks we have access to in building up these more human concepts.”
Maghetis also explained that it has been revealed by the studies that chicks only identify rough quantities and associate smaller with left and larger with right. Judging amounts, like how many predators are nearby and how much food is there, is very important for survival. A number of non human species like monkeys, pigeons and chickens have the capacity to distinguish rough numerical magnitude.