Babies' spatial reasoning predicts later math skills

By Carol Clark | eScienceCommons | Aug. 17, 2016

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"Our work may contribute to the understanding of the nature of mathematics," says Emory psychologist Stella Lourenco, shown meeting with a young visitor to the Emory Child Study Center.  Emory Photo/Video

Spatial reasoning measured in infancy predicts how children do at math at four years of age, finds a new study published in Psychological Science.

“We’ve provided the earliest documented evidence for a relationship between spatial reasoning and math ability,” says Emory University psychologist Stella Lourenco, whose lab conducted the research. “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.”

Emory graduate student Jillian Lauer is co-author of the study. The researchers controlled the longitudinal study for general cognitive abilities of the children, including measures such as vocabulary, working memory, short-term spatial memory and processing speed.

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

The findings may help explain why some people embrace math while others feel they are bad at it and avoid it. “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.”

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