Approximate Number Sense Shares Etiological Overlap with Mathematics and General Cognitive Ability

Intelligence. 2017 Nov;65:67-74. doi: 10.1016/j.intell.2017.08.005. Epub 2017 Sep 13.


Approximate number sense (ANS), the ability to rapidly and accurately compare quantities presented non-symbolically, has been proposed as a precursor to mathematics skills. Earlier work reported low heritability of approximate number sense, which was interpreted as evidence that approximate number sense acts as a fitness trait. However, viewing ANS as a fitness trait is discordant with findings suggesting that individual differences in approximate number sense acuity correlate with mathematical performance, a trait with moderate genetic effects. Importantly, the shared etiology of approximate number sense, mathematics, and general cognitive ability has remained unexamined. Thus, the etiology of approximate number sense and its overlap with math and general cognitive ability was assessed in the current study with two independent twin samples (N = 451 pairs). Results suggested that ANS acuity had moderate but significant additive genetic influences. ANS also had overlap with generalist genetic mechanisms accounting for variance and covariance in mathematics and general cognitive ability. Furthermore, ANS may have genetic factors unique to covariance with mathematics beyond overlap with general cognitive ability. Evidence across both samples was consistent with the proposal that the etiology of approximate number sense functions similar to that of mathematics and general cognitive skills.