Number sense across the lifespan as revealed by a massive Internet-based sample

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012 Jul 10;109(28):11116-20. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1200196109. Epub 2012 Jun 25.


It has been difficult to determine how cognitive systems change over the grand time scale of an entire life, as few cognitive systems are well enough understood; observable in infants, adolescents, and adults; and simple enough to measure to empower comparisons across vastly different ages. Here we address this challenge with data from more than 10,000 participants ranging from 11 to 85 years of age and investigate the precision of basic numerical intuitions and their relation to students' performance in school mathematics across the lifespan. We all share a foundational number sense that has been observed in adults, infants, and nonhuman animals, and that, in humans, is generated by neurons in the intraparietal sulcus. Individual differences in the precision of this evolutionarily ancient number sense may impact school mathematics performance in children; however, we know little of its role beyond childhood. Here we find that population trends suggest that the precision of one's number sense improves throughout the school-age years, peaking quite late at ∼30 y. Despite this gradual developmental improvement, we find very large individual differences in number sense precision among people of the same age, and these differences relate to school mathematical performance throughout adolescence and the adult years. The large individual differences and prolonged development of number sense, paired with its consistent and specific link to mathematics ability across the age span, hold promise for the impact of educational interventions that target the number sense.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Child
  • Cognition*
  • Humans
  • Individuality
  • Internet
  • Mathematics*
  • Middle Aged
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Software