Sensory-integration system rather than approximate number system underlies numerosity processing: A critical review

Acta Psychol (Amst). 2016 Nov;171:17-35. doi: 10.1016/j.actpsy.2016.09.003. Epub 2016 Sep 16.


It is widely accepted that human and nonhuman species possess a specialized system to process large approximate numerosities. The theory of an evolutionarily ancient approximate number system (ANS) has received converging support from developmental studies, comparative experiments, neuroimaging, and computational modelling, and it is one of the most dominant and influential theories in numerical cognition. The existence of an ANS system is significant, as it is believed to be the building block of numerical development in general. The acuity of the ANS is related to future arithmetic achievements, and intervention strategies therefore aim to improve the ANS. Here we critically review current evidence supporting the existence of an ANS. We show that important shortcomings and confounds exist in the empirical studies on human and non-human animals as well as the logic used to build computational models that support the ANS theory. We conclude that rather than taking the ANS theory for granted, a more comprehensive explanation might be provided by a sensory-integration system that compares or estimates large approximate numerosities by integrating the different sensory cues comprising number stimuli.

Keywords: Approximate number system; Brain; Cognitive control; Cognitive development; Evolution; Numerosity; Sensory integration.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Computer Simulation
  • Cues
  • Humans
  • Mathematics
  • Sensation / physiology*