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Psychon Bull Rev. 2017 Apr;24(2):352-369. doi: 10.3758/s13423-016-1126-2.

Number-space associations without language: Evidence from preverbal human infants and non-human animal species.

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Department of General Psychology, University of Padova, Via Venezia, 8, Padova, Italy.
Université Paris Descartes, Sorbonne Paris Cité, Paris, France.
CNRS UMR 8242, Laboratoire Psychologie de la Perception, 45 rue des Saints-Pères, 75006, Paris, France.


It is well known that humans describe and think of numbers as being represented in a spatial configuration, known as the 'mental number line'. The orientation of this representation appears to depend on the direction of writing and reading habits present in a given culture (e.g., left-to-right oriented in Western cultures), which makes this factor an ideal candidate to account for the origins of the spatial representation of numbers. However, a growing number of studies have demonstrated that non-verbal subjects (preverbal infants and non-human animals) spontaneously associate numbers and space. In this review, we discuss evidence showing that pre-verbal infants and non-human animals associate small numerical magnitudes with short spatial extents and left-sided space, and large numerical magnitudes with long spatial extents and right-sided space. Together this evidence supports the idea that a more biologically oriented view can account for the origins of the 'mental number line'. In this paper, we discuss this alternative view and elaborate on how culture can shape a core, fundamental, number-space association.


Infants; Mental number line; Non-human animals; Number; Space-number association

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