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'Gut feeling' geometry

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Kids and adults who have probably never seen a ruler or talked about triangles, rectangles or parallel lines have a reliable "gut feeling" about geometry, according to a new study.

Some of the people with a "gut feeling" for geometry belong to the Mundurukú, a group of people who live in scattered, isolated villages in the Amazon.

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Even though most of the Mundurukú who participated in this research had little or no formal education in schools, and have not used rulers, compasses or maps, they had no problem understanding and using many different concepts of geometry.

This "gut feeling" for geometry is even more interesting because the Mundurukú language has few words for arithmetic, geometry or concepts of space. The lack of words for these ideas provides an opportunity for scientists to learn about the human mind. Are the general ideas of geometry something that people have to be taught? Or do people just understand the basics without formal instruction?

The new study suggests that humans may not need to be specifically taught the fundamentals of geometry. But, it's not yet clear if we are born with a "gut feeling" for geometry or if we somehow learn about geometry at a very young age.

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To investigate their grasp of geometry, Mundurukú children and adults were asked, in the Mundurukú language, to point to the "weird" or "ugly" image from a series of six images.

Within each set of six images, five of the images all contained the same concept of geometry, and one image did not.

Even 6-year-old kids did a good job picking out the image that did not fit, in terms of geometry.

American kids who took the same tests did about as well as Mundurukú kids and adults. While well educated American adults did better, everyone had a tough time with the same kinds of questions.

The word "geometry" comes from the words "Earth" and "measure," and geometry was first used to measure and chart the length, area and shape of land surfaces. To try to see if Mundurukú could use geometry for useful tasks, the researchers also set up a "map test."

The results were quite similar to the tests with the different shapes: both Mundurukú children and adults did a good job reading maps. They did as well as American children, though not as well as educated American adults.

This research by Stanislas Dehaene from INSERM-CEA's Cognitive Neuroimaging Unit in Orsay, France and his colleagues appears in the 20 January 2006 issue of the journal Science.