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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012 Nov 13;109(46):18737-42. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1207212109. Epub 2012 Oct 22.

Nonsymbolic number and cumulative area representations contribute shared and unique variance to symbolic math competence.

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  • 1Department of Psychology, Emory University, Atlanta, GA 30322, USA. slouren@emory.edu

Abstract

Humans and nonhuman animals share the capacity to estimate, without counting, the number of objects in a set by relying on an approximate number system (ANS). Only humans, however, learn the concepts and operations of symbolic mathematics. Despite vast differences between these two systems of quantification, neural and behavioral findings suggest functional connections. Another line of research suggests that the ANS is part of a larger, more general system of magnitude representation. Reports of cognitive interactions and common neural coding for number and other magnitudes such as spatial extent led us to ask whether, and how, nonnumerical magnitude interfaces with mathematical competence. On two magnitude comparison tasks, college students estimated (without counting or explicit calculation) which of two arrays was greater in number or cumulative area. They also completed a battery of standardized math tests. Individual differences in both number and cumulative area precision (measured by accuracy on the magnitude comparison tasks) correlated with interindividual variability in math competence, particularly advanced arithmetic and geometry, even after accounting for general aspects of intelligence. Moreover, analyses revealed that whereas number precision contributed unique variance to advanced arithmetic, cumulative area precision contributed unique variance to geometry. Taken together, these results provide evidence for shared and unique contributions of nonsymbolic number and cumulative area representations to formally taught mathematics. More broadly, they suggest that uniquely human branches of mathematics interface with an evolutionarily primitive general magnitude system, which includes partially overlapping representations of numerical and nonnumerical magnitude.

PMID:
23091023
[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
PMCID:
PMC3503215
Free PMC Article
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