Origins of Mathematical Intuitions

The Case of Arithmetic


  • Stanislas Dehaene

    1. INSERM, Cognitive Neuro-imaging Unit, IFR 49, Gif sur Yvette, France
    2. CEA, NeuroSpin center, IFR 49, Gif sur Yvette, France
    3. Collège de France, Paris, France
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Address for correspondence: Stanislas Dehaene, INSERM, Cognitive Neuro-imaging Unit, IFR 49, Gif sur Yvette, France. Voice +33 1 69 08 83 90.


Mathematicians frequently evoke their “intuition” when they are able to quickly and automatically solve a problem, with little introspection into their insight. Cognitive neuroscience research shows that mathematical intuition is a valid concept that can be studied in the laboratory in reduced paradigms, and that relates to the availability of “core knowledge” associated with evolutionarily ancient and specialized cerebral subsystems. As an illustration, I discuss the case of elementary arithmetic. Intuitions of numbers and their elementary transformations by addition and subtraction are present in all human cultures. They relate to a brain system, located in the intraparietal sulcus of both hemispheres, which extracts numerosity of sets and, in educated adults, maps back and forth between numerical symbols and the corresponding quantities. This system is available to animal species and to preverbal human infants. Its neuronal organization is increasingly being uncovered, leading to a precise mathematical theory of how we perform tasks of number comparison or number naming. The next challenge will be to understand how education changes our core intuitions of number.