Three parietal circuits for number processing

Cogn Neuropsychol. 2003 May 1;20(3):487-506. doi: 10.1080/02643290244000239.


Did evolution endow the human brain with a predisposition to represent and acquire knowledge about numbers? Although the parietal lobe has been suggested as a potential substrate for a domain-specific representation of quantities, it is also engaged in verbal, spatial, and attentional functions that may contribute to calculation. To clarify the organisation of number-related processes in the parietal lobe, we examine the three-dimensional intersection of fMRI activations during various numerical tasks, and also review the corresponding neuropsychological evidence. On this basis, we propose a tentative tripartite organisation. The horizontal segment of the intraparietal sulcus (HIPS) appears as a plausible candidate for domain specificity: It is systematically activated whenever numbers are manipulated, independently of number notation, and with increasing activation as the task puts greater emphasis on quantity processing. Depending on task demands, we speculate that this core quantity system, analogous to an internal "number line," can be supplemented by two other circuits. A left angular gyrus area, in connection with other left-hemispheric perisylvian areas, supports the manipulation of numbers in verbal form. Finally, a bilateral posterior superior parietal system supports attentional orientation on the mental number line, just like on any other spatial dimension.