Distinct representations of subtraction and multiplication in the neural systems for numerosity and language
It has been proposed that recent cultural inventions such as symbolic arithmetic recycle evolutionary older neural mechanisms. A central assumption of this hypothesis is that the degree to which a preexisting mechanism is recycled depends on the degree of similarity between its initial function and the novel task. To test this assumption, we investigated whether the brain region involved in magnitude comparison in the intraparietal sulcus (IPS), localized by a numerosity comparison task, is recruited to a greater degree by arithmetic problems that involve number comparison (single-digit subtractions) than by problems that involve retrieving number facts from memory (single-digit multiplications). Our results confirmed that subtractions are associated with greater activity in the IPS than multiplications, whereas multiplications elicit greater activity than subtractions in regions involved in verbal processing including the middle temporal gyrus (MTG) and inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) that were localized by a phonological processing task. Pattern analyses further indicated that the neural mechanisms more active for subtraction than multiplication in the IPS overlap with those involved in numerosity comparison and that the strength of this overlap predicts interindividual performance in the subtraction task. These findings provide novel evidence that elementary arithmetic relies on the cooption of evolutionary older neural circuits.