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THE NUMBER SENSE We are born with a number sense, the ability to discriminate between different numbers of items and sets, and we share that ability with other animals. That is the ground-breaking hypothesis of Stanislas Dehaene, a professor of experimental cognitive psychology at Collège de France, in his respected bestselling book The Number Sense:Howthe MindCreates Mathematics. That said, the literature is mixed as to whether we are born with a sensitivity to numbers specifically, or quantity more generally. “It’s nature and nurture because even though you can discriminate which of two groups of people contains more people, humans have invented symbolic systems representing numbers, and that ability we don’t share with animals,” says Daniel Ansari, director of the


Numerical Cognition Lab at Western University. “We’ve evolved these symbolic systems over thousands of years. Children may be born with a basic sense of quantity, but then they need to learn these systems.” Dehaene writes that even though number sense is wired into the brain for everyone at birth and that genes probably play some role in mathematical talent, that role is eclipsed by the power of learning fuelled by a passion for numbers. —MTB


not in the way you likely imagine. According to Eagleman, much of the knowledge in the depths of the unconscious brain began in the form of conscious plans. Essentially, your most funda- mental (conscious) drives are stitched into the fabric of your neural circuitry. Consider Marilyn McNevitts’ career path, for example. A vice- president at Scotiabank in Toronto, she’s the only one of her siblings who went to university. “I was always very goal oriented. I was good at math and keen on it. I liked business. In fact, instead of playing school, I’d play office. But this wasn’t because of any exposure to business. My mom was a lab assistant at the high school and dad worked at CN. It was just this innate prefer- ence I had,” she says. She earned her undergraduate degree in commerce at the University of Manitoba and understood early on that becoming a professional accountant would open the most doors. “I had a goal for the type of lifestyle I wanted to achieve and I thought the CPA was the best path to achieve that goal.” So what does it all mean? For her part, Fellows says the more


we learn about the brain the more optimistic we should be about the brain’s ability to change at all levels, and the degree to which experiences at all stages of life may be important. Just how much can the brain change? Does the plasticity argument


mean that a CPA can become a neuroscientist, for example? “Probably, if you really want to and are motivated enough” says Carey. “While you don’t want to deny there are individual differ- ences in ultimate capacity, those differences are dwarfed by the effects of hard work. But hard work requires motivation and time. I don’t think the individual differences you see in expertise in any way provide evidence that there were innate differences to start with in the relevant brain areas.” Even if there were, two things can be true, says Ansari.


“Plasticity is entirely possible within a brain that is determined. A determined brain does not mean a fixed brain. It simply means the owner of that brain doesn’t have volitional control over his or her behaviour, which doesn’t mean that the brain can’t change in response to the environment. These two views are not in opposition.” Perhaps Foster sums it up best. When asked if he believes he


had a natural aptitude for accounting, he replies: “Neurosci- entists will tell you what I think I thought back when I started my CPA career has no relation to what I actually thought. What my brain tells me today is that I didn’t realize there were other options.”


Mary Teresa Bitti is a freelance writer based in Oakville, Ont. DECEMBER 2015 | CPA MAGAZINE | 37


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