Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Differences between Literates and Illiterates on Symbolic but Not Nonsymbolic Numerical Magnitude Processing

Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Differences between Literates and Illiterates on Symbolic but Not Nonsymbolic Numerical Magnitude Processing

Article excerpt

Abstract The study of numerical magnitude processing provides a unique opportunity to examine interactions between phylogenetically ancient systems of semantic representations and those that are the product of enculturation. While nonsymbolic representations of numerical magnitude are processed similarly by humans and nonhuman animals, symbolic representations of numerical magnitude (e.g., Hindu-Arabic numerals) are culturally invented symbols that are uniquely human. Here, we report a comparison of symbolic and nonsymbolic numerical magnitude processing in two groups of participants who differ substantially in their level of literacy. In this study, level of literacy is used as an index of level of school-based numeracy skill. The data from these groups demonstrate that while the processing of nonsymbolic numerical magnitude (numerical distance effect) is unaffected by an individual's level of literacy, the processing of Hindu-Arabic numerals differs between literate and illiterate individuals who live in a literature culture and have limited symbolic recognition skills. These findings reveal that nonsymbolic numerical magnitude processing is unaffected by enculturation, while the processing of numerical symbols is modulated by literacy.

Keywords Literacy . Numerical cognition . Nonsymbolic . Symbolic . Numerical magnitude . Enculturation

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Numerical magnitude processing is thought to be grounded in an ancient evolutionary system for the representation and processing of numerical magnitude in nonsymbolic format (sets of items) that is subserved by similar brain structures in both humans and nonhuman primates (e.g., Nieder & Dehaene, 2009).

Over the course of cultural history, humans have invented symbolic systems for the representation of numerical magnitude. It is commonly assumed that numerical symbols are mapped onto preexisting, phylogenetically ancient, nonsymbolic numerical magnitude representations (e.g., Verguts & Fias, 2004); however, the nature of the relationship between these representations is not well understood (e.g., Ansari, 2008).

In the present study, we explore the relationship between symbolic and nonsymbolic processing by comparing the performance of illiterate and the participants on measures of symbolic and nonsymbolic numerical magnitude comparison. In the present study, literacy skill was used as an index of level of education, or more precisely, it is a correlate of one's level of school-based symbolic numeracy skill. Literacy has been used as a proxy for education in many other studies (Li et al., 2006; Petersson, Reis, & Ingvar, 2001). Although it would be ideal to directly assess numeracy skills, there are no known normed numeracy assessment tools for illiterate participants (see Ardila et al., 2010).

Thus, the present study represents a controlled experimental study with carefully matched groups, which examines the presently unresolved question of whether an individual's learning trajectory-specifically, their literacy skill-differentially modulates nonsymbolic and symbolic representations of numerical magnitude. By doing so, this investigation can constrain current theoretical understand- ing of the relationship between symbolic and nonsymbolic numerical magnitude processing and can directly probe the role played by processes of enculturation.

Evidence for the cultural invariance of nonsymbolic numerical magnitude representation has been suggested through offline studies of illiterates who are speakers of languages that do not have count words for numbers greater than 3-4 (Butterworth, Reeve, Reynolds, & Lloyd, 2008; Gordon, 2004). Despite a rudimentary counting system, these individuals exhibit performance on offline nonsymbolic magnitude processing tasks (spatial matching tasks, memory for counters, cross-modal matching, and nonverbal approximate addition) that is very similar to that of speakers whose language has a symbolic representation of number. …

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