Perceiving fingers in single-digit arithmetic problems
In this study, we investigate in children the neural underpinnings of finger representation and finger movement involved in single-digit arithmetic problems. Evidence suggests that finger representation and finger-based strategies play an important role in learning and understanding arithmetic. Because different operations rely on different networks, we compared activation for subtraction and multiplication problems in independently localized finger somatosensory and motor areas and tested whether activation was related to skill. Brain activations from children between 8 and 13 years of age revealed that only subtraction problems significantly activated finger motor areas, suggesting reliance on finger-based strategies. In addition, larger subtraction problems yielded greater somatosensory activation than smaller problems, suggesting a greater reliance on finger representation for larger numerical values. Interestingly, better performance in subtraction problems was associated with lower activation in the finger somatosensory area. Our results support the importance of fine-grained finger representation in arithmetical skill and are the first neurological evidence for a functional role of the somatosensory finger area in proficient arithmetical problem solving, in particular for those problems requiring quantity manipulation. From an educational perspective, these results encourage investigating whether different finger-based strategies facilitate arithmetical understanding and encourage educational practices aiming at integrating finger representation and finger-based strategies as a tool for instilling stronger numerical sense.