Babies' Spatial Reasoning Skills Predict Math Ability at Age 4

Spatial reasoning skills during infancy may predict math ability at age four, according to a new study published in the journal Psychological Science. The findings may help explain why some people embrace math while others fear and avoid it.

“Our results suggest that it’s not just a matter of smarter infants becoming smarter four-year-olds,” said researcher Stella Lourenco, a psychologist at Emory University. “Instead, we believe that we’ve honed in on something specific about early spatial reasoning and math ability.”

Prior research has shown that superior spatial aptitude at 13 years of age predicts professional and creative accomplishments in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math more than 30 years later.

The good news is that these spatial skills can be honed early on. “We know that spatial reasoning is a malleable skill that can be improved with training,” Lourenco says. “One possibility is that more focus should be put on spatial reasoning in early math education.”

For the study, Lourenco’s team tested 63 infants, ages six months to 13 months, for a visual-spatial skill known as “mental transformation,” or the ability to transform and rotate objects in “mental space.” Mental transformation is considered a hallmark of spatial intelligence.

The researchers controlled for the general cognitive abilities of the children, such as vocabulary, working memory, short-term spatial memory, and processing speed.

Lourenco and her co-author, graduate student Jillian Lauer, showed the babies a series of paired video streams. In each stream, the babies were presented two matching shapes, similar to Tetris tile pieces, which changed orientation in each presentation. In one of the video streams, the two shapes in every third presentation rotated to become mirror images. In the other video stream, the shapes only appeared in non-mirror orientations. Eye tracking technology revealed which video stream the infants looked at, and for how long.

This type of experiment is called a change-detection paradigm. “Babies have been shown to prefer novelty,” Lourenco explains. “If they can engage in mental transformation and detect that the pieces occasionally rotate into a mirror position, that’s interesting to them because of the novelty.”

As a group, the infants looked significantly longer at the video stream with mirror images, but there were individual differences in the amount of time they looked at it.

The participants were tested again at age four for mental transformation ability, along with mastery of simple symbolic math concepts. The findings revealed that the babies who spent more time looking at the mirror stream of images maintained these higher mental transformation abilities at age four, and also performed better on the math problems.

“Our work may contribute to our understanding of the nature of mathematics,” Lourenco says. “By showing that spatial reasoning is related to individual differences in math ability, we’ve added to a growing literature suggesting a potential contribution for spatial reasoning in mathematics. We can now test the causal role that spatial reasoning may play early in life.”

The findings may help improve not only regular early math education, but also help develop interventions for children with math disabilities. Dyscalculia, for example, is a developmental disorder that interferes with doing even simple arithmetic.

“Dyscalculia has an estimated prevalence of five to seven percent, which is roughly the same as dyslexia,” Lourenco says. “Dyscalculia, however, has generally received less attention, despite math’s importance to our technological world.”

“We’ve provided the earliest documented evidence for a relationship between spatial reasoning and math ability,” said Lourenco. “We’ve shown that spatial reasoning beginning early in life, as young as six months of age, predicts both the continuity of this ability and mathematical development.”

Source: Emory Health Sciences