Canada Research Chair in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience
Tier 2 - March 2007, Renewed July 2012 - July 2017
Social Sciences and Humanities
Office: WC 325E
Lab: WC 215E
Phone: 519 661-2111 ext.80548
Numerical Cognition Laboratory
Aside from learning to walk and say "mom" or "dad," when a child learns to count is often one of the proudest days in a new parent's life. After all, not only is arithmetic a sure sign of that child's mental development, it is also one of those skills that make us uniquely human.
But how does a child learn to process numbers? That's what Dr. Daniel Ansari, Canada Research Chair in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, is trying to figure out. Ansari was one of the first researchers in the world to use non-invasive brain-imaging devices to understand how children's brains process numbers, and how that brain activation changes with age. By doing that, he discovered how children's brains process numerical information differently than adults' brains, thus highlighting the importance of development. This discovery also raised the question of how these developmental processes go awry in children who have difficulties with math.
Previous research suggests that even six-month-old infants have a rudimentary understanding of quantity. They'll look at a screen with eight dots, but soon get bored. When the screen changes to show sixteen dots, they get interested again-showing that they notice a numerical difference when it is sufficiently large. Interestingly, it is not until around three-and-a-half-years of age that children start to understand the meaning of counting. Once children have this understanding they can use it to learn arithmetic. What factors explain the apparent gap between number skills in infants and young children? The details of how children go from being able to discriminate "numerosity" in a general way to having an exact understanding of verbal number remains poorly understood, which makes Ansari's research program timely and important.
Using advanced brain-imaging techniques like functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), as well as measures of eye movements, Ansari will study how children develop basic verbal and non-verbal numerical abilities. For those children who develop trouble with math, he'll be able to better pinpoint how difficulties emerge in the developmental process.
In a world where adults need to balance a chequebook, save for retirement, evaluate the latest health study, and do countless other skills that require more and more complex math, this sort of knowledge is crucial. Once the research is complete, Ansari will design programs to help parents and teachers identify math problems at the earliest possible age, and find ways to address them before they become life-long barriers to success.