Numbers Are New
Tags: language, math, neuroscience, science.
You’ve probably heard of bands of people in Australia or Amazonia whose concept of number is limited to, “1, 2, 3, 4, many.” Here’s a really good article describing that phenomenon in a lot more detail.
One especially interesting result was the notion that people intuitively distribute numbers on a logarithmic scale rather than a linear one. As it turns out, children do this, too.
It is Pica’s belief that understanding quantities in terms of estimating ratios is a universal human intuition, due to the fact that ratios are much more important for survival in the wild. Historically, faced with a group of adversaries, we needed to know instantly whether there were more of them than us. When we saw two trees, we needed to know instantly which had more fruit hanging from it. In neither case was it necessary to enumerate every enemy or every fruit individually. The crucial thing was to be able to make quick estimates of the relevant amounts and compare them; in other words to make approximations and judge their ratios.
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