All numbers are not equal: An electrophysiological investigation of small and large number representations

Daniel C. Hyde, Elizabeth S. Spelke

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Behavioral and brain imaging research indicates that human infants, humans adults, and many nonhuman animals represent large nonsymbolic numbers approximately, discriminating between sets with a ratio limit on accuracy. Some behavioral evidence, especially with human infants, suggests that these representations differ from representations of small numbers of objects. To investigate neural signatures of this distinction, event-related potentials were recorded as adult humans passively viewed the sequential presentation of dot arrays in an adaptation paradigm. In two studies, subjects viewed successive arrays of a single number of dots interspersed with test arrays presenting the same or a different number; numerical range (small numerical quantities 1-3 vs. large numerical quantities 8-24) and ratio difference varied across blocks as continuous variables were controlled. An early-evoked component (N1), observed over widespread posterior scalp locations, was modulated by absolute number with small, but not large, number arrays. In contrast, a later component (P2p), observed over the same scalp locations, was modulated by the ratio difference between arrays for large, but not small, numbers. Despite many years of experience with symbolic systems that apply equally to all numbers, adults spontaneously process small and large numbers differently. They appear to treat small-number arrays as individual objects to be tracked through space and time, and large-number arrays as cardinal values to be compared and manipulated.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1039-1053
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of cognitive neuroscience
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2009
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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