Abstract

As literate adults, we appreciate numerical values as abstract entities that can be represented by a numeral, a word, a number of lines on a scorecard, or a sequence of chimes from a clock. This abstract, notation-independent appreciation of numbers develops gradually over the first several years of life. Here, using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we examine the brain mechanisms that 6- and 7-year-old children and adults recruit to solve numerical comparisons across different notation systems. The data reveal that when young children compare numerical values in symbolic and nonsymbolic notations, they invoke the same network of brain regions as adults including occipito-temporal and parietal cortex. However, children also recruit inferior frontal cortex during these numerical tasks to a much greater degree than adults. Our data lend additional support to an emerging consensus from adult neuroimaging, nonhuman primate neurophysiology, and computational modeling studies that a core neural system integrates notation-independent numerical representations throughout development but, early in development, higher-order brain mechanisms mediate this process.

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