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Fluency in symbolic arithmetic refines the approximate number system in parietal cortex


Suárez-Pellicioni MMacarena , Booth JRJames R . Human brain mapping. 2018 07 19; 39(10). 3956-3971


The objective of this study was to investigate, using a brain measure of approximate number system (ANS) acuity, whether the precision of the ANS is crucial for the development of symbolic numerical abilities (i.e., scaffolding hypothesis) and/or whether the experience with symbolic number processing refines the ANS (i.e., refinement hypothesis). To this aim, 38 children solved a dot comparison task inside the scanner when they were approximately 10-years old (Time 1) and once again approximately 2 years later (Time 2). To study the scaffolding hypothesis, a regression analysis was carried out by entering ANS acuity at T1 as the predictor and symbolic math performance at T2 as the dependent measure. Symbolic math performance, visuospatial WM and full IQ (all at T1) were entered as covariates of no interest. In order to study the refinement hypothesis, the regression analysis included symbolic math performance at T1 as the predictor and ANS acuity at T2 as the dependent measure, while ANS acuity, visuospatial WM and full IQ (all at T1) were entered as covariates of no interest. Our results supported the refinement hypothesis, by finding that the higher the initial level of symbolic math performance, the greater the intraparietal sulcus activation was at T2 (i.e., more precise representation of quantity). To the best of our knowledge, our finding constitutes the first evidence showing that expertise in the manipulation of symbols, which is a cultural invention, has the power to refine the neural representation of quantity in the evolutionarily ancient, approximate system of quantity representation.