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Stanislas Dehaene

A Good Head for Maths

This book on experimental psychology is clear and rigorous, precise and alert - it is instructive and incites us to think. It brings together all the observational information - both experimental and spontaneous - on the neurological bases of counting. Yes, having a good head for math does exist ! We all have an innate aptitude for counting, and so do animals : rats, for example, can count up to twenty. Stanislas Dehaene constructed, with the help of Jean-Pierre Changeux, a model of neuronal networks which simulates the functioning of the nervous system of animals when they extract numbers from an ensemble of objects. The author goes on to establish the fact that even babies know how to count. The difference between this innate disposition and our school arithmetic is that the former is continuous, in such a way that the difference between two numbers is all the more easily recognized that the numbers are far from one another, 5 and 67 for example. Our school arithmetic must then make this continuum more discreet in order to attain proficiency in counting. This is what makes it a learning process. And it is because school arithmetic is contrary to our natural aptitude that some of us have developed such an allergy to mathematics.

Stanislas Dehaene graduated from the French Ecole Normale Supérieure, is a researcher at the Inserm and works in the Laboratory of cognitive and psycholinguistic sciences of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes in social sciences.