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BABY MATH STUDY MULTIPLIES CONFUSION

A RESEARCHER in Tucson, Ariz., rounded up a roomful of 5-month-olds to determine whether they can add and subtract small numbers of objects mentally.

Karen Wynn, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Arizona, showed 16 babies rubber Mickey Mouse dolls, adding and then taking away some of the dolls as she recorded how much time the babies spent gazing at the display area.Scientists say Wynn's studies prove that babies tend to look longer at things that are new or unexpected, and that conclusion suggests the ability to grasp the rudiments of arithmetic is inborn.

I say that Wynn has stumbled onto the cause of math anxiety - strangers who take your dolls away.

Maybe Wynn is one of those people who played the violin at age 2, competed in gymnastics at 5 and ran her own day-care center at 7, and therefore has no problem asking infants to do math.

Or maybe she has tender, moving memories from her own productive days spent in the crib and wants to enhance the self-esteem of babies who only thought they were happy grinning and kicking at the mobiles hanging above their heads.

In any case, Wynn sticks by her findings.

"This study shows a fundamental aspect of cognition," Wynn said in a telephone interview. "The better we understand how the normal mind works, the better we can understand how the abnormal mind works."

Not that she's calling babies born without the math gene "abnormal."

In fact, Wynn said her studies cannot predict which babies will be whizzes at math later in life and which will need constant reassurance that one plus one equals two.

I'm in the latter group.

Numbers give me headaches and make me cry. My eyes glaze over at the sight of numbers so big they need commas to separate them. And I forget little numbers, such as my age or how much I have in my savings account.

Probably there is a 12-step program somewhere that could help me, but as I am only comfortable dealing with numbers divisible by 5, I wouldn't be able to participate.

(I do know how to figure out tips, because my mother taught me a math secret. You take 10 percent of the bill and double that. If you've had good service, you leave the 20 percent tip. If you've had only so-so service, you put some of the money back in your purse.)

I'm happy just the way I am. If God had meant for me to understand numbers, She wouldn't have invented calculators.

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service