What Finger-Counting Says About You And Your BrainS

Here's a fun experiment: stop what you're doing and use your hands to count to ten. Done? Good. Now remember how you did it, because we're about to analyze your technique; as it turns out, how you count with your hands may say a lot more about you than you think.

So, how do you count? Many cultures use some variation of what psychologists call the "closed fist method", wherein one starts with a closed fist, and begins counting by unfurling the fingers of his or her hand. But the similarities end there.

"The degree of cultural diversity in finger counting... has been grossly underestimated," write psychologists Andrea Bender and Sieghard Beller in the latest issue of Cognition. Europeans, for example, tend to begin counting with the thumb of their left hand. People from the Middle East, however, often begin counting with the little finger of their right hand. If you hail from China, or North America, you're more likely to begin counting on an index finger. The Japanese are the odd ones out; they tend to start from an open-hand position, and count by closing their fingers into a fist, beginning with the little finger.

"Great," you might be thinking. "So people count differently... what's the big deal?"

The big deal, explains The Guardian's Corrine Burns, is that finger counting may feel as natural as breathing, but that findings such as these strongly suggest that it is neither innate nor universal. "There are actually many different techniques, and they are culturally transmitted." This realization feeds into a growing body of evidence that suggests finger counting habits have a significant effect on how our brains process numbers. Burns explains:

There is a mental link between hands and numbers, but that link doesn't come from humans learning to use their hands as a counting aid. It goes back much further in our evolution. Marcie Penner-Wilger and Michael L. Anderson propose that the part of our brain that originally evolved to represent our fingers has been recruited to represent our concept of number, and that these days it performs both functions.

fMRI scans show that brain regions associated with finger sense are activated when we perform numerical tasks, even if we don't use our fingers to help us complete those tasks. And studies show that young children with good finger awareness are better at performing quantitative tasks than those with less finger sense.

Even as adults, the way we mentally picture numbers in space – the SNARC effect – is related to the hand on which we begin finger counting.

All these findings are tied to an emerging field of research known as embodied cognition, which contends that much of the way we relate to, interpret and experience the world is shaped by our physical experiences — even in seemingly unrelated or illogical ways. Proponents of embodied cognition argue, for example, that it can explain why we associate weight with importance, and why social exclusion feels, quite literally, cold. The physical and the psychological self, these findings suggest, could be more closely linked than many of us realize. [Cognition via The Guardian]

Top image via Shutterstock