Part of Jagiellonian University in Kraków
Part of Jagiellonian University in Kraków

Professional mathematicians differ from controls in their spatial-numerical associations


While mathematically impaired individuals have been shown to have deficits in all kinds of basic numerical representations, among them spatial-numerical associations, little is known about individuals with exceptionally high math expertise. They might have a more abstract magnitude representation or more flexible spatial associations, so that no automatic left/small and right/large spatial-numerical association is elicited. To pursue this question, we examined the Spatial Numerical Association of Response Codes (SNARC) effect in professional mathematicians which was compared to two control groups: Professionals who use advanced math in their work but are not mathematicians (mostly engineers), and matched controls. Contrarily to both control groups, Mathematicians did not reveal a SNARC effect. The group differences could not be accounted for by differences in mean response speed, response variance or intelligence or a general tendency not to show spatial-numerical associations. We propose that professional mathematicians possess more abstract and/or spatially very flexible numerical representations and therefore do not exhibit or do have a largely reduced default left-to-right spatial-numerical orientation as indexed by the SNARC effect, but we also discuss other possible accounts. We argue that this comparison with professional mathematicians also tells us about the nature of spatial-numerical associations in persons with much less mathematical expertise or knowledge.

Cite as:
Cipora, K., Hohol, M., Nuerk, H.-C., Willmes, K., Brożek, B., Kucharzyk, B., Nęcka, E. (2016) Professional mathematicians differ from controls in their spatial-numerical associations. Psychological Research, 80, 710–726.
MCLL is funded by the Excellence Initiative – Jagiellonian University within the Priority Research Area Society of the Future
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