Representing exact number visually using mental abacus

J Exp Psychol Gen. 2012 Feb;141(1):134-49. doi: 10.1037/a0024427. Epub 2011 Jul 18.

Abstract

Mental abacus (MA) is a system for performing rapid and precise arithmetic by manipulating a mental representation of an abacus, a physical calculation device. Previous work has speculated that MA is based on visual imagery, suggesting that it might be a method of representing exact number nonlinguistically, but given the limitations on visual working memory, it is unknown how MA structures could be stored. We investigated the structure of the representations underlying MA in a group of children in India. Our results suggest that MA is represented in visual working memory by splitting the abacus into a series of columns, each of which is independently stored as a unit with its own detailed substructure. In addition, we show that the computations of practiced MA users (but not those of control participants) are relatively insensitive to verbal interference, consistent with the hypothesis that MA is a nonlinguistic format for exact numerical computation.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Imagination / physiology*
  • Male
  • Mathematics*
  • Problem Solving / physiology*