Long before they are able to walk or talk, babies as young as six to nine months old may have fledgling math skills, according to a new study.

Researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel guaged babies' reactions to a puppet show, concluding that the babies detected a change in the number of puppets before them.

“These findings show that the brain network involved in error detection can be identified in infancy,” write Andrea Berger, PhD, and colleagues. Berger’s team isn’t suggesting that even the smartest infant is ready for hard-core math, but write that “our data indicate that the basic brain circuitry involved in the detection of errors is already functional before the end of the first year of life.”

The study appears in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Berger’s team studied 14 baby boys and 10 baby girls aged 6-9 months (average age: 7 months).

Each baby wore a special head net studded with 128 sensors tracking brain activity. Picture 128 little hexagonal sensors on the tots’ heads, with a veil of wires trailing down their necks.

The babies wore the head nets in the comfort of their mother’s or father’s lap. Thirty-three other babies fussed or got too tired for the test; they were sent home.

While wearing the head nets, the babies watched a videotaped puppet show.

First, two puppets appeared and then were hidden by a screen. A hand reached behind the screen and removed a puppet. Lastly, the screen was removed.

Starting with two puppets and taking one away leaves one puppet. But sometimes, an unexpected second puppet was there when the screen was removed.

When that happened, the babies gazed at the screen for a slightly longer time than when only one puppet appeared (slightly over 8 seconds with two puppets; nearly 7 seconds with one).

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The one-second time gap isn’t huge, but it didn’t seem to be due to chance, write Berger and colleagues.

What’s more, researchers noted that when the babies saw the wrong number of puppets, the babies’ brain activity mirrored adult brain activity in processing errors.

The researchers have no way of knowing exactly what the babies were thinking; it is impossible to know, they write, if the babies were consciously wondering where the second puppet came from. Additionally, babies are too young at 6-9 months of age to correct errors, the researchers note.

However, the ability to spot such errors was previously thought to develop later on, at 3 years of age, write Berger and colleagues.

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SOURCES: Berger, A. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Aug. 15, 2006; vol 103: pp 12649-12653. News release, University of Oregon. News release, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.