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TagBrian Butterworth

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Funny boy and his dog looking at piles of coins

Researchers Are Zeroing In on Animal Number Sense

We’re beginning to find out more about how animals that don’t really “think” much can keep track of numbers, when needed

University College cognitive psychology prof Brian Butterworth, author of Can fish count? (Basic Books, 2022), talks about animal number sense in a recent article in Psyche: He offers many examples of animals counting single digit numbers but then helpfully addresses the question of how they do it. We are talking here about a variety of very different types of neurological equipment — insects vs. amphibians, for example. Neuroscientists are beginning to pinpoint specific brain functions associated with counting for specific tasks: Female túngara frogs benefit by mating with the male that can produce six croaks in one breath, over the male that can manage only five, because this is an indicator of respiratory fitness. Naturally, the male will try to…

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Two piles of coins

Are Our Neurons Really Wired for Numbers?

Some neuroscientists say they have shown hardwiring in studies of crows and macaques but others say no, these life forms differ too much

University College London cognitive neuroscientist Brian Butterworth, author of a forthcoming book, Can fish count? (Basic Books, 2022), reckons that, one way or another, in a modern urban society, we process about 16,000 numbers in an average day. Numbers create conceptual relationships between vastly different things. From the publisher’s introduction to his book, we learn, “The philosopher Bertrand Russell once observed that realizing that a pair of apples and the passage of two days could somehow both be represented by the concept we call “two” was one of the most astonishing discoveries anyone had ever made.” At The Scientist, Catherine Offord, discussing his work, offers a critical distinction between estimations of quantity and actual counting: “Our perception of quantity, separate…