Understanding less than nothing: Children's neural response to negative numbers shifts across age and accuracy

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Abstract

We examined the brain activity underlying the development of our understanding of negative numbers, which are amounts lacking direct physical counterparts. Children performed a paired comparison task with positive and negative numbers during an fMRI session. As previously shown in adults, both pre-instruction fifth-graders and post-instruction seventh-graders demonstrated typical behavioral and neural distance effects to negative numbers, where response times and parietal and frontal activity increased as comparison distance decreased. We then determined the factors impacting the distance effect in each age group. Behaviorally, the fifth-grader distance effect for negatives was significantly predicted only by positive comparison accuracy, indicating that children who were generally better at working with numbers were better at comparing negatives. In seventh-graders, negative number comparison accuracy significantly predicted their negative number distance effect, indicating that children who were better at working with negative numbers demonstrated a more typical distance effect. Across children, as age increased, the negative number distance effect increased in the bilateral IPS and decreased frontally, indicating a frontoparietal shift consistent with previous numerical development literature. In contrast, as negative comparison task accuracy increased, the parietal distance effect increased in the left IPS and decreased in the right, possibly indicating a change from an approximate understanding of negatives' values to a more exact, precise representation (particularly supported by the left IPS) with increasing expertise. These shifts separately indicate the effects of increasing maturity generally in numeric processing and specifically in negative number understanding. © 2013 Gullick and Wolford.

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Gullick, M. M., & Wolford, G. (2013). Understanding less than nothing: Children’s neural response to negative numbers shifts across age and accuracy. Frontiers in Psychology, 4(SEP). https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00584

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