Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Addition and subtraction by human infants

An Erratum to this article was published on 28 January 1993

An Erratum to this article was published on 31 December 1992


HUMAN infants can discriminate between different small numbers of items1–4, and can determine numerical equivalence across perceptual modalities5,6. This may indicate the possession of true numerical concepts1,4–7. Alternatively, purely perceptual discriminations may underlie these abilities8,9. This debate addresses the nature of subitization, the ability to quantify small numbers of items without conscious counting10,11. Subitization may involve the holistic recognition of canonical perceptual patterns that do not reveal ordinal relationships between the numbers12, or may instead be an iterative or 'counting' process that specifies these numerical relationships4,13. Here I show that 5-month-old infants can calculate the results of simple arithmetical operations on small numbers of items. This indicates that infants possess true numerical concepts, and suggests that humans are innately endowed with arithmetical abilities. It also suggests that subitization is a process that encodes ordinal information, not a pattern-recognition process yielding non-numerical percepts.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Rent or buy this article

Prices vary by article type



Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout


  1. Starkey, P. & Cooper, R. G. Science 210, 1033–1035 (1980).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  2. Strauss, M. S. & Curtis, L. E. Child Dev. 52, 1146–1152 (1981).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  3. Antell, S. & Keating, D. P. Child Dev. 54, 695–701 (1983).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  4. van Loosbroek, E. & Smitsman, A. W. Devl Psychol. 26, 916–922 (1990).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Starkey, P., Spelke, E. S. & Gelman, R. Science 222, 179–181 (1983).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  6. Starkey, P., Spelke, E. S. & Gelman, R. Cognition 36, 97–127 (1990).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  7. Wynn, K. Mind Lang. (in the press).

  8. Davis, H., Albert, M. & Barron, R. W. Science 228, 1222 (1985).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  9. Cooper, R. G. in Origins of Cognitive Skills 157–192 (ed. Sophian, C.) (Erlbaum, Hillsdale, New Jersey, 1984).

    Google Scholar 

  10. Chi, M. T. H. & Klahr, D. J. exp. Child Psychol. 19, 434–439 (1975).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  11. Silverman, I. W. & Rose, A. P. Devl Psychol. 16, 539–540 (1980).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Mandler, G. & Shebo, B. J. J. exp. Psychol. Gen. 11, 1–22 (1982).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Gallistel, C. R. The Organization of Learning 343–348 (MIT, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1990).

    Google Scholar 

  14. Spelke, E. S. in Perceptual Development in Infancy: Minnesota Symposia on Child Psychology Vol. 20 (ed. Yonas, A.) 197–234 (Erlbaum, Hillsdale, New Jersey, 1988).

    Google Scholar 

  15. Spelke, E. S., Cog. Science 14, 29–56 (1990).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Baillargeon, R. Cognition 38, 13–42 (1991).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  17. Baillargeon, R. & DeVos, J. Child Dev. 62, 1227–1246 (1991).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  18. Wynn, K. Cog. Psychol. 24, 220–251 (1992).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Wynn, K. Addition and subtraction by human infants. Nature 358, 749–750 (1992).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing