A striking way in which humans differ from non-human primates is in their ability to represent numerical quantity using abstract symbols and to use these 'mental tools' to perform skills such as exact calculations. How do functional brain circuits for the symbolic representation of numerical magnitude emerge? Do neural representations of numerical magnitude change as a function of development and the learning of mental arithmetic? Current theories suggest that cultural number symbols acquire their meaning by being mapped onto non-symbolic representations of numerical magnitude. This Review provides an evaluation of this contention and proposes hypotheses to guide investigations into the neural mechanisms that constrain the acquisition of cultural representations of numerical magnitude.