Jon Hamilton (NPR) | Without language, large numbers don’t add up

A study of people in Nicaragua has concluded that humans need language in order to understand large numbers… “It confirms that the kinds of problems in perceiving numerical quantities that we found in the Amazonian tribes is not due to just the cultural or environmental circumstances,” says Peter Gordon of Columbia University… “What’s exciting about this new study is that these people are immersed in a culture that has large exact numbers and in which large exact enumeration is very important,” says Daniel Casasanto… He says the brains of all people — and some animals — can tell the difference between, say, two cookies and three cookies on a plate. The human brain is also very good at assessing approximate values, like the difference between 10 and 20 cookies, Casasanto says. But he says the brain needs some sort of counting system to tell the difference between 10 cookies and 11. “What language does is give you a means of linking up our small, exact number abilities with our large, approximate number abilities[.]“

Is this idea actually specific to numbers? Or is it simply the function of words that they are tools that help us better understand and manipulate what would otherwise be large abstract concepts?

npr - large numbers image


Jon Hamilton (NPR) | Without language, large numbers don’t add up