Counting With Fingers is Good for the Brain

Do you think that counting with fingers is ‘babyish’ and, therefore, discourage your child from doing so? Well, you may be wrong. Here’s why counting with fingers is good for the brain.

By Dr Priscilla J S Selvaraj  • 7 min read

Counting With Fingers is Good for the Brain

I remember one day, decades ago, when, as a toddler, I was asked to pose for a photograph along with my brother. For some reason, I decided to go into one of those ‘terrible twos’ moments and started wailing. To appease me, my mom offered to buy me candies. I stopped crying immediately and started counting with my fingers – ‘one, two, three, candies…’ The moment is still frozen in our good old black-and-white photograph. Well, soon I grew up and almost outgrew (I said almost, because I do finger-count at times!) this habit. That was because it was drilled into me – ‘Do mental sums; do not count with your fingers.’ Of course, I found it easy to make the transition. But, there were some friends of mine who were more comfortable counting with the fingers than mentally adding up or subtracting numbers. They were what you would call ‘visual learners’. Here’s good news for such learners. Recent research has revealed that counting with fingers is good for the brain!

1. It serves as a visual aid to learning maths: Jo Boaler and Lang Chen, in their article, ‘Why kids should use their fingers in maths class’, published in The Atlantic (April 2016) state that, ‘Evidence from both behavioral and neuroscience studies shows that when people receive training on ways to perceive and represent their own fingers, they get better at doing so, which leads to higher mathematics achievement.’ They add that, ‘Stopping students from using their fingers when they count could, according to the new brain research, be akin to halting their mathematical development. Fingers are probably one of our most useful visual aids, and the finger area of our brain is used well into adulthood.’

In an exclusive to ParentCircle, Jo Boaler says -

It is very bad to stop children from using their fingers to count. Finger counting comes with strong neurological benefits. Research indicates that our fingers work the same way as our brains. In simple words, we are actually using our fingers in the brain while counting. So, why do we hesitate to use our fingers to count? It is a myth that children who use their fingers struggle; they are actually smarter. Finger perception is very important in teaching mathematics. This is probably why some of the great pianists in the world were also astute mathematicians. 

2. It improves maths learning: In an article titled, ‘Mathematics at Your Fingertips: Testing a Finger Training Intervention to Improve Quantitative Skills’, published in Frontiers in Education (June 2017), researchers Tim Jay and Julie Betenson suggest that finger counting seems to boost the learning of maths, especially when coupled with number games. Their explanation is - “the part of the brain that responds to number lies in close proximity to the area that is activated whenever subjects perform pointing and grasping activities.” Their experiment was based on a study of 6- to 7-year-olds.

3. It aids mental processes: Ilaria Berteletti and James R Booth, in their study, ‘Perceiving fingers in single-digit arithmetic problems’, published on Frontiers in psychology (March 2015), reported this finding - The somatosensory finger area of the brain, which is dedicated to the perception and representation of the fingers, lit up when 8- to 13-year-olds were given complex subtraction problems. Based on their study, the researchers suggest that children are more likely to support their mental (calculation) processes with finger-based back-up strategies.

4. It (especially, finger discrimination) increases mathematical knowledge: Gracia-Baffaluy M and Noel MP, in their article on (April 2008) state that pupils’ arithmetic knowledge increased after they had been taught how to differentiate between their fingers.

One, two, three, four… Oh, I’m back to counting with my fingers!

That’s four major research citations on how finger-counting helps learn maths. With such evidence by way of research, isn’t it high time you stopped discouraging your little one from holding up her fingers to count while doing sums?

Counting With Fingers is Good for the Brain

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