It’s all relative

educacion_19-141635One last thing on numbers, for now.

Forget about base 10 and counting in lots of 10,000.  Think back to when you were a child.  One of the first things you were taught was probably how to count from 1 to 10.  It’s always one of the first things I learn in a foreign language as well.  The concept of numbers and counting seems to be essential to most cultures.

In 2004, a team from MIT discovered that an Amazonian tribe had no words for specific numbers.  What they thought were words meaning ‘one’, ‘two’, and ‘many’, have recently been shown to mean something else.  This time, instead of asking the Piraha tribespeople to count objects as they were added (one, two, three…), they were asked to count backwards as objects were removed from the group.  It seems that the words thought to mean ‘one’, ‘two’, and ‘many’ were general terms, and had more to do with relative amounts. What they thought was ‘two’ could actually mean as many as five or six (and obviously sometimes two), ‘one’ was anything less than ‘two’, and ‘many’ was anything more.

Even though the Piraha don’t even have a number to describe ‘one’, they could still match identical-sized groups.  However, in memory-matching games, they didn’t do so well.   So apparently humans don’t need cardinal numbers (we do have an innate concept of ‘amount’), but it does really help us with keeping track of groups of things over time.  It’s a little easier than checking your bank account and finding out that you have ‘less money than you did yesterday’.  Although either way is still not very comforting.

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