Spatial grounding of symbolic arithmetic: an investigation with optokinetic stimulation

Elvio Blini, Marco Pitteri, Marco Zorzi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Growing evidence suggests that mental calculation might involve movements of attention along a spatial representation of numerical magnitude. Addition and subtraction on nonsymbolic numbers (numerosities) seem to induce a “momentum” effect, and have been linked to distinct patterns of neural activity in cortical regions subserving attention and eye movements. We investigated whether mental arithmetic on symbolic numbers, a cornerstone of abstract mathematical reasoning, can be affected by the manipulation of overt spatial attention induced by optokinetic stimulation (OKS). Participants performed additions or subtractions of auditory two-digit numbers during horizontal (experiment 1) or vertical OKS (experiment 2), and eye movements were concurrently recorded. In both experiments, the results of addition problems were underestimated, whereas results of subtractions were overestimated (a pattern that is opposite to the classic Operational Momentum effect). While this tendency was unaffected by OKS, vertical OKS modulated the occurrence of decade errors during subtractions (i.e., fewer during downward OKS and more frequent during upward OKS). Eye movements, on top of the classic effect induced by OKS, were affected by the type of operation during the calculation phase, with subtraction consistently leading to a downward shift of gaze position and addition leading to an upward shift. These results highlight the pervasive nature of spatial processing in mental arithmetic. Furthermore, the preeminent effect of vertical OKS is in line with the hypothesis that the vertical dimension of space–number associations is grounded in universal (physical) constraints and, thereby, more robust than situated and culture-dependent associations with the horizontal dimension.

Original languageEnglish
JournalPsychological Research
Publication statusAccepted/In press - Jan 1 2018

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)

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