A new study published in Psychological Science shows that spatial reasoning that is measured in infancy can predict how kids perform in math by the time they turn four.
“We’ve provided the earliest documented evidence for a relationship between spatial reasoning and math ability,” said Stella Lourenco, whose lab conducted the research at Emory University. “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.”
For the study, researchers controlled factors for general cognitive ability, which included measuring memory, vocabulary 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.”
“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.”
The researchers tested 63 infants between six months and 13 months of age for visual spatial skills as “mental transformations” – the ability to transform and rotate objects mentally. They showed the babies a series of paired video streams presenting a series of two matched shapes. Each shape changed its 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 recorded which video stream the infants looked at, and for how long.
“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.”
Eye-tracking technology allowed the researchers to measure where the babies looked, and for how long. 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.
Fifty-three of the children, or 84 percent of the original sample, returned at age four to complete the longitudinal study. The participants were again tested for mental transformation ability, along with mastery of simple symbolic math concepts. The results showed that the children who spent more time looking at the mirror stream of images as infants 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.”
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