A random-matrix theory of the number sense

Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2017 Feb 19;373(1740):20170253. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2017.0253.


Number sense, a spontaneous ability to process approximate numbers, has been documented in human adults, infants and newborns, and many other animals. Species as distant as monkeys and crows exhibit very similar neurons tuned to specific numerosities. How number sense can emerge in the absence of learning or fine tuning is currently unknown. We introduce a random-matrix theory of self-organized neural states where numbers are coded by vectors of activation across multiple units, and where the vector codes for successive integers are obtained through multiplication by a fixed but random matrix. This cortical implementation of the 'von Mises' algorithm explains many otherwise disconnected observations ranging from neural tuning curves in monkeys to looking times in neonates and cortical numerotopy in adults. The theory clarifies the origin of Weber-Fechner's Law and yields a novel and empirically validated prediction of multi-peak number neurons. Random matrices constitute a novel mechanism for the emergence of brain states coding for quantity.This article is part of a discussion meeting issue 'The origins of numerical abilities'.

Keywords: Weber–Fechner Law; neonates; number neurons; number sense; numerotopy; random-matrix theory.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Animals
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Cognition*
  • Discrimination, Psychological*
  • Haplorhini / physiology*
  • Haplorhini / psychology
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Models, Neurological*
  • Psychophysics