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PLoS One. 2011 Apr 26;6(4):e19373. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0019373.

Multi-representation of symbolic and nonsymbolic numerical magnitude in Chinese number processing.

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State Key Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroscience and Learning, Beijing Normal University, Beijing, China.


Numerical information can be conveyed by either symbolic or nonsymbolic representation. Some symbolic numerals can also be identified as nonsymbolic quantities defined by the number of lines (e.g., I, II, III in Roman and -, =, ≡ in Japanese Kanji and Chinese). Here we report that such multi-representation of magnitude can facilitate the processing of these numerals under certain circumstances. In a magnitude comparison task judging 1 to 9 (except 5) Chinese and Arabic numerals presented at the foveal (at the center) or parafoveal (3° left or right of the center) location, multi-representational small-value Chinese numerals showed a processing advantage over single-representational Arabic numerals and large-value Chinese numerals only in the parafoveal condition, demonstrated by lower error rates and faster reaction times. Further event-related potential (ERP) analysis showed that such a processing advantage was not reflected by traditional ERP components identified in previous studies of number processing, such as N1 or P2p. Instead, the difference was found much later in a N400 component between 300-550 msec over parietal regions, suggesting that those behavioral differences may not be due to early processing of visual identification, but later processing of subitizing or accessing mental number line when lacking attentional resources. These results suggest that there could be three stages of number processing represented separately by the N1, P2p and N400 ERP components. In addition, numerical information can be represented simultaneously by both symbolic and nonsymbolic systems, which will facilitate number processing in certain situations.

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