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Front Hum Neurosci. 2011 Nov 4;5:130. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2011.00130. eCollection 2011.

Brain correlates of mathematical competence in processing mathematical representations.

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  • 1Research on Learning and Instruction, Institute for Behavioral Sciences, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich Switzerland.


The ability to extract numerical information from different representation formats (e.g., equations, tables, or diagrams) is a key component of mathematical competence but little is known about its neural correlate. Previous studies comparing mathematically less and more competent adults have focused on mental arithmetic and reported differences in left angular gyrus (AG) activity which were interpreted to reflect differential reliance on arithmetic fact retrieval during problem solving. The aim of the present functional magnetic resonance imaging study was to investigate the brain correlates of mathematical competence in a task requiring the processing of typical mathematical representations. Twenty-eight adults of lower and higher mathematical competence worked on a representation matching task in which they had to evaluate whether the numerical information of a symbolic equation matches that of a bar chart. Two task conditions without and one condition with arithmetic demands were administered. Both competence groups performed equally well in the non-arithmetic conditions and only differed in accuracy in the condition requiring calculation. Activation contrasts between the groups revealed consistently stronger left AG activation in the more competent individuals across all three task conditions. The finding of competence-related activation differences independently of arithmetic demands suggests that more and less competent individuals differ in a cognitive process other than arithmetic fact retrieval. Specifically, it is argued that the stronger left AG activity in the more competent adults may reflect their higher proficiency in processing mathematical symbols. Moreover, the study demonstrates competence-related parietal activation differences that were not accompanied by differential experimental performance.


angular gyrus; arithmetic; fMRI; fact retrieval; mathematical competence; symbol–referent mapping

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