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Neuroimage. 2018 Jul 15;175:188-200. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2018.03.064. Epub 2018 Mar 28.

A preference for mathematical processing outweighs the selectivity for Arabic numbers in the inferior temporal gyrus.

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Psychology Department, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, 94305, USA. Electronic address:
Psychology Department, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, 94305, USA.
Psychology Department, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, 94305, USA; Neurosciences Program, Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, CA, 94305, USA; Stanford Neurosciences Institute, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, 94305, USA.


A region in the posterior inferior temporal gyrus (ITG), referred to as the number form area (NFA, here ITG-numbers) has been implicated in the visual processing of Arabic numbers. However, it is unknown if this region is specifically involved in the visual encoding of Arabic numbers per se or in mathematical processing more broadly. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) during experiments that systematically vary tasks and stimuli, we find that mathematical processing, not preference to Arabic numbers, consistently drives both mean and distributed responses in the posterior ITG. While we replicated findings of higher responses in ITG-numbers to numbers than other visual stimuli during a 1-back task, this preference to numbers was abolished when participants engaged in mathematical processing. In contrast, an ITG region (ITG-math) that showed higher responses during an adding task vs. other tasks maintained this preference for mathematical processing across a wide range of stimuli including numbers, number/letter morphs, hands, and dice. Analysis of distributed responses across an anatomically-defined posterior ITG expanse further revealed that mathematical task but not Arabic number form can be successfully and consistently decoded from these distributed responses. Together, our findings suggest that the function of neuronal regions in the posterior ITG goes beyond the specific visual processing of Arabic numbers. We hypothesize that they ascribe numerical content to the visual input, irrespective of the format of the stimulus.


Inferior temporal gyrus; Mathematical cognition; Number form area; Numerosity; Vision; Visual word form area

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