Common and Segregated Neural Pathways for the Processing of Symbolic and Nonsymbolic Numerical Magnitude: An fMRI Study

Neuroimage. 2010 Jan 1;49(1):1006-17. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2009.07.071. Epub 2009 Aug 7.


Numbers are everywhere in modern life. Looking out a window, one might see both symbolic numbers, like the numerals on a thermometer, and nonsymbolic quantities, such as the number of chickadees at a bird feeder. Although differences between symbolic and nonsymbolic numbers appear very salient, most research on numerical cognition has focused on similarities rather than differences between numerical stimulus formats. Thus, little is known about differences in the processing of symbolic and nonsymbolic numerical magnitudes. A recent computational model proposed that symbolic and nonsymbolic quantities undergo distinct encoding processes which then converge on a common neural representation of numerical magnitude (Verguts, T., Fias, W., 2004. Representation of number in animals and humans: a neural model. J. Cogn. Neurosci. 16 (9), 1493-1504.). Moreover, this model predicted that discrete brain regions underlie these encoding processes. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, the present study tested the predictions of this model by examining the functional neuroanatomy of symbolic and nonsymbolic number processing. Nineteen adults compared the relative numerical magnitude of symbolic and nonsymbolic stimuli. An initial conjunction analysis revealed the right inferior parietal lobule to be significantly active in both symbolic and nonsymbolic numerical comparison. A contrast of the activation associated with symbolic and nonsymbolic stimuli revealed that both the left angular and superior temporal gyri were more activated for symbolic compared to nonsymbolic numerical magnitude judgments. The reverse comparison (nonsymbolic>symbolic) revealed several regions including the right posterior superior parietal lobe. These results reveal both format-general and format-specific processing of numerical stimuli in the brain. The potential roles of these regions in symbolic and nonsymbolic numerical processing are discussed.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Data Interpretation, Statistical
  • Female
  • Hearing / physiology
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Neural Pathways / physiology*
  • Parietal Lobe / physiology
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Reading
  • Size Perception / physiology*
  • Temporal Lobe / physiology
  • Young Adult