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Acta Psychol (Amst). 2016 Jan;163:17-26. doi: 10.1016/j.actpsy.2015.10.010. Epub 2015 Nov 18.

Approximate number and approximate time discrimination each correlate with school math abilities in young children.

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University of British Columbia, Canada. Electronic address:
Centro de Investigación Básica en Psicología, Uruguay.
Johns Hopkins University, United States.


What is the relationship between our intuitive sense of number (e.g., when estimating how many marbles are in a jar), and our intuitive sense of other quantities, including time (e.g., when estimating how long it has been since we last ate breakfast)? Recent work in cognitive, developmental, comparative psychology, and computational neuroscience has suggested that our representations of approximate number, time, and spatial extent are fundamentally linked and constitute a "generalized magnitude system". But, the shared behavioral and neural signatures between number, time, and space may alternatively be due to similar encoding and decision-making processes, rather than due to shared domain-general representations. In this study, we investigate the relationship between approximate number and time in a large sample of 6-8 year-old children in Uruguay by examining how individual differences in the precision of number and time estimation correlate with school mathematics performance. Over four testing days, each child completed an approximate number discrimination task, an approximate time discrimination task, a digit span task, and a large battery of symbolic math tests. We replicate previous reports showing that symbolic math abilities correlate with approximate number precision and extend those findings by showing that math abilities also correlate with approximate time precision. But, contrary to approximate number and time sharing common representations, we find that each of these dimensions uniquely correlates with formal math: approximate number correlates more strongly with formal math compared to time and continues to correlate with math even when precision in time and individual differences in working memory are controlled for. These results suggest that there are important differences in the mental representations of approximate number and approximate time and further clarify the relationship between quantity representations and mathematics.


Approximate number system; Formal mathematics; Individual differences; Time discrimination

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