Some people are just born good at math, new research indicates, which has found significant differences in the ‘number sense’ of pre-school children.

A team of Johns Hopkins University psychologists has establsihed that people’s inborn and primitive Approximate Number System, or ANS, varies widely at an early age.

ANS is what allows us to estimate, at a glance, the number of people in a room or apples on a tree, and appears to be basic to all animals, not just human beings.

Though a link’s already been established between ANS and formal math ability in adolescents, post-doctoral fellow MelissaLibertus says this is the first study to examine ANS in children too young to have had much formal mathematics instruction.

“The relationship between ‘number sense’ and math ability is important and intriguing because we believe that ‘number sense’ is universal, whereas math ability has been thought to be highly dependent on culture and language and takes many years to learn,” she says.

“Thus, a link between the two is surprising and raises many important questions and issues, including one of the most important ones, which is whether we can train a child’s number sense with an eye to improving his future math ability.”

The team tested 200 four-year-old children on several tasks measuring number sense, mathematical ability and verbal ability.

For example, they were asked to view flashing groups of blue and yellow dots on a computer screen and to estimate which color group of dots was more numerous. Counting wasn’t an option, both because the dots were flashed so quickly and because most of the children weren’t yet able to count very well.

They were also given a standardized test of early mathematics ability often given to children of this age.

Finally, a verbal test was given to establish whether it was simply general intelligence that accounted for differences.

And the team found that, even at this early age, ANS appeared to correlate with achievement at standard school math tasks.

“Previous studies testing older children left open the possibility that differences in instructional experience is what caused the difference in their number sense; in other words, that some children tested in middle or high school looked like they had better number sense simply because they had had better math instruction,” says Libertus.

“Unlike those studies, this one shows that the link between ‘number sense’ and math ability is already present before the beginning of formal math instruction.”