Educación, Psicología & Ciencia

Space, Time and Numbers!

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As my father says, – Nothing better as calculate accurately the right time you need to rich the precise location where you wanted to be. Punctuality

Is there some relation between how humans perceive the space and time with numbers? Why?


Photo by Louis Luangkesorn


In this post, we will discuss about – magnitude processing (one of my favorite topics in cognitive psychology), and how the brain deals with information about time, space, number and other magnitudes.

During the last two years, I spent a lot of time reading articles about numerical cognition, thus everything I´ll write here is linked to these discoveries and thanks to a hundred of researchers and academics that have been publishing about this topic (and struggling with it).

Rats, chimpanzees and pigeons are gifted at calculations


A pigeon performing a math test. Willian van der Vliet

– What? That was also my reaction. I am struggling with a derivate and a pigeon understands math. Yes (feed them today!)

Apes, monkeys and babies know about numbers. There´re many experiments which have proved that exist shared mechanisms across species and development. Also how magnitudes are linked to language reasoning (Kemmener, 2005) in domains as mental representations and graphs.
Walsh (2003) explained very well how time, space, number, size, speed and other magnitudes are linked to the parietal cortex. The kid needs to learn about the environment through exploration and motor interactions, and therefore the kid needs to encode these variables for action. It seems that we can´t doubt anymore the relation between mental processes and the motor system (psychomotricity). (The ATOM theory explains this deeply).

Mapping of quantities

But, how quantities are mapped onto the brain?

An example: brighter, faster, bigger… they are magnitudes “MORE-LESS”

– How big is?
– The number 6 is higher than …?
– How bright?
– How fast?

Neuroscientists called this phenomenon “Numerotopy”. It has been proved that the primary sensory cortices receive and process information from the senses. A study published in the magazine Science showed that quantities are also topographically represented in the brain (in chimpanzees). Lately, Benjamin Harvey found that in our brains we have cells organized topographically, in one side we have smallest quantities, in the other side largest quantities and in the middle we have intermediate quantities. So abstract features as magnitude can be organized this way in our brains, and this could explain why we find much harder to make approximations about larger quantities.

Numbers hidden in Parietal Lobes

Is there some study proving that parietal damage leads to deficits in temporal, spatial and numerical cognition? Yes. There are many studies and findings that address the issue of common cortical metrics of time and other magnitudes. We can find neuropsychological findings, brain imaging studies, transcranial magnetic stimulation studies and etc.
Kotch et al. (2009), Kaufmann et al. (2008), Pinel et al. (2002), Zhou et al. (2006), Walsh et al. (2003) and much more.

How apply this to Education?

– Yes, I´m wondering the same…

We have been using Stroop-like paradigm with children (numerical stroop); the digits can vary in numerical value and size, so the kids have to make a judgment on either the value or size. It let us to analyze if they process automatically the number or not, and in which conditions they do this (age, math disability, ADHD…).

We have been doing also assessments in Stroop-Like paradigm adapted to children, with animals (cartoons). I could observe that some children have also problems doing estimations of size in case of animals (- Tell me, which one is bigger? Is it big or small?) And we also record the reaction time and mistakes they do. They tend to increase the TR.

My kids also struggle with imaginary number lines. If I ask them to imagine the number line, where is the 1, 5 or 8… I see some difficulties and doubts. If I draw the number line on the floor and we work with movements they learn much easily, and little by little we try to transfer this knowledge to the abstract. The same with puzzles and other constructions that require the management of the visuospatial component. However, other children show difficulties only with symbolic stimulus, so numbers.

The understanding of all these cognitive processes that underlie calculation would let us to design remedial programs to help children and adults with learning disabilities or to prevent them.

To be continued 🙂

Thanks for reading. I would be glad if you want to add/comment/discuss something.

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Autor: Lorena Álvarez

Psicóloga, activista, trotamundos y una apasionada por la ciencia y las letras.

Un pensamiento en “Space, Time and Numbers!

  1. Hello Lorena,

    I´m SEN teacher, some of my students have a profound difficulty in comprehending and dealing with the concept of time. Sometimes seems like they cannot imagine or estimate what ten minutes means… their performance in maths is poor. Sometimes we don´t know how to work with them. I find very interesting your blog.
    Keep the good work!


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