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Keywords:

  • Mental calculation;
  • Problem-size effect;
  • Arithmetic N400 effect;
  • Semantic N400 effect;
  • Memory access;
  • Event-related potentials

Abstract

Event-related potentials were recorded with 61 electrodes from 16 students who verified either the correctness of single-digit multiplication problems or the semantic congruency of sentences. Multiplication problems varied in size and sentence fragments in constraint. Both semantic and arithmetic incongruencies evoked a typical N400 with a clear parieto-central maximum. In addition, numerically larger problems (8×7), in comparison to smaller problems (3×2), evoked a negativity starting at about 360 ms whose maximum was located over the right temporal-parietal scalp. These results indicate that the arithmetic incongruency and the problem-size effect are functionally distinct. It is suggested that the arithmetic and the semantic incongruency effects are both functionally related to a context-dependent spread of activation in specialized associative networks, whereas the arithmetic problem-size effect is due to rechecking routines that go beyond basic fact retrieval.