Varieties of numerical abilities

Cognition. 1992 Aug;44(1-2):1-42. doi: 10.1016/0010-0277(92)90049-n.


This paper provides a tutorial introduction to numerical cognition, with a review of essential findings and current points of debate. A tacit hypothesis in cognitive arithmetic is that numerical abilities derive from human linguistic competence. One aim of this special issue is to confront this hypothesis with current knowledge of number representations in animals, infants, normal and gifted adults, and brain-lesioned patients. First, the historical evolution of number notations is presented, together with the mental processes for calculating and transcoding from one notation to another. While these domains are well described by formal symbol-processing models, this paper argues that such is not the case for two other domains of numerical competence: quantification and approximation. The evidence for counting, subitizing and numerosity estimation in infants, children, adults and animals is critically examined. Data are also presented which suggest a specialization for processing approximate numerical quantities in animals and humans. A synthesis of these findings is proposed in the form of a triple-code model, which assumes that numbers are mentally manipulated in an arabic, verbal or analogical magnitude code depending on the requested mental operation. Only the analogical magnitude representation seems available to animals and preverbal infants.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aptitude*
  • Cognition*
  • Humans
  • Mathematics*
  • Problem Solving*