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Neural signatures of number processing in human infants: evidence for two core systems underlying numerical cognition


Daniel C. Hyde, Department of Psychology, Harvard University, 1118 WJH, 33 Kirkland Street, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA; e-mail:


Behavioral research suggests that two cognitive systems are at the foundations of numerical thinking: one for representing 1–3 objects in parallel and one for representing and comparing large, approximate numerical magnitudes. We tested for dissociable neural signatures of these systems in preverbal infants by recording event-related potentials (ERPs) as 6–7.5-month-old infants (n = 32) viewed dot arrays containing either small (1–3) or large (8–32) sets of objects in a number alternation paradigm. If small and large numbers are represented by the same neural system, then the brain response to the arrays should scale with ratio for both number ranges, a behavioral and brain signature of the approximate numerical magnitude system obtained in animals and in human adults. Contrary to this prediction, a mid-latency positivity (P500) over parietal scalp sites was modulated by the ratio between successive large, but not small, numbers. Conversely, an earlier peaking positivity (P400) over occipital-temporal sites was modulated by the absolute cardinal value of small, but not large, numbers. These results provide evidence for two early developing systems of non-verbal numerical cognition: one that responds to small quantities as individual objects and a second that responds to large quantities as approximate numerical values. These brain signatures are functionally similar to those observed in previous studies of non-symbolic number with adults, suggesting that this dissociation may persist over vast differences in experience and formal training in mathematics.