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Finger counting methods and their effect on cognition

Counting on your fingers may feel natural but it is not innate or universal; methods are culturally transmitted (like number lines) and may have an effect on cognition. A Guardian blog post asks you to “without thinking about it too much, use your hands to count to 10”. How did you do it?

The post explains:

If you’re European, there’s a good chance you started with closed fists, and began counting on the thumb of the left hand. If you’re from the Middle East, you probably also started with a closed fist, but began counting with the little finger of the right hand.
Most Chinese people, and many North Americans, also use the closed-fist system, but begin counting on an index finger, rather than the thumb. The Japanese typically start from an open-hand position, counting by closing first the little finger, and then the remaining digits.
In India, it’s common to make use of finger segments to get as many as 20 counts from each hand. It’s even been reported that the Amazonian Pirah people don’t use their fingers to count at all.

Well, I fit the European in this description all right. How about you?

The research paper on which the blog post is based argues that “the degree of cultural diversity in finger counting, however, has been grossly underestimated in the field at large”. The researchers outline the variability and explore “the cognitive implications these properties may have, for instance, for the efficiency of information encoding and representation, ease of learning and mastering the system, or memory retrieval and cognitive load”. They also highlight the “ambivalent consequences” arising from structural inconsistencies between finger counting and other modes of number representation like verbal or notational systems, and discuss how this informs questions on the evolution and development of counting systems.

The Guardian post asks “Could it be that some people are always going to be better at maths than others, just because of where they grew up?”

That’s unlikely, says Dr Bender, who points out that some aspects of finger counting are widespread across the world, while others vary even within a given culture. She does, though, believe that by practising different techniques of finger counting we could all improve our mental arithmetic. That hasn’t been empirically tested yet, but it might be worth a try.

Guardian: What does the way you count on your fingers say about your brain?
: Nature and culture of finger counting: Diversity and representational effects of an embodied cognitive tool (Bender, A. and Beller, S., 2012. Cognition. DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2012.05.005).

2 Responses to “Finger counting methods and their effect on cognition”

  1. Avatar Sandy Nicholson

    Interesting … though I have my reservations (without having looked at the paper) about the journalistic spin being put on this by the Guardian. Still, I’ll definitely read the article, as I’m interested in similar issues from a cognitive linguistics standpoint too.

    As for me, I’m clearly some sort of mutant European, as I followed the European method except that I started with my right hand. (I’m not left-handed, in case that has a bearing on things.)

  2. Avatar Ruud

    I am also a right-hand-starting European.

    Maybe interesting that, during my technical education I sometimes started to count binary on my fingers. You can count to 1024 on two hands then!


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