Everyone has a different way of counting, and this diversity reveals surprising information. In this article, we explore what this daily gesture says about us and why it is so important.
Counting with the fingers, a universal gesture but unique to each person
Counting is a skill we use throughout our lives, whether it's to shop, calculate a bill, or simply estimate how many people we're ahead of in a lineup. Numbers are omnipresent in our daily lives, and the way we manipulate them with our fingers, called dactylonomy, is far from trivial.
Indeed, there are many ways to count to 10 with your fingers according to the BBC. Some people start with the thumb, others with the index finger, some use the left hand, others the right… There is no universal rule, but these differences can say a lot about our personality and cultural background.
Fingerprinting, a mirror of our culture
It is interesting to note that typing varies from country to country. For example, in the United Kingdom and many parts of Europe, it is common to start counting with the thumb and end with the little finger. Conversely, in the United States, people usually start with the index finger and end with the thumb.
In Iran, typing begins with the little finger, while in Japan, people begin with the fingers extended over an open palm, then closing them to form a closed fist. These variations reflect the history and culture of each region of the world, reflecting our “living heritage.
Researchers focus on the cultural diversity of fingerprinting
Cultural diversity in finger counting has not always been appreciated, according to Andrea Bender, professor of cognition, culture, and language at the University of Bergen, Norway. Researchers have long assumed that there is only one way to count with fingers, thus overlooking cultural differences.
Yet there are infinite variations in the way cultures use their fingers or other body parts to count. For example, some indigenous tribes in northern Mexico use the knuckles of their hands to count, while the Yuki language (now extinct) in California used the spaces between the fingers.
Understanding humans through their fingers
Cognitive scientists like Bender have been studying how we count with our fingers for decades, convinced that this unbiased approach could provide valuable information on both large and small scales, including about ourselves. Thus, as Jagatia reports, they are beginning to show that there is still much to discover about the relationship between gestures and language learning. For example, gestures may influence how we hear words, but it is not yet clear whether gesture determines word choice or vice versa.
What cognitive implications do these differences have? How do children learn to count as they grow up with different representations of numbers, and what consequences does this have for their development? These are all questions that remain unanswered and may soon open up new avenues for social science research. In the meantime, it is fascinating to realize that the way we count with our fingers, such a simple, everyday gesture, can tell us so much about ourselves and our cultural heritage.