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Open Access Research

Individual differences in non-symbolic numerical abilities predict mathematical achievements but contradict ATOM

Christian Agrillo*, Laura Piffer and Andrea Adriano

Author Affiliations

Department of General Psychology, University of Padova, Padova, Italy

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Behavioral and Brain Functions 2013, 9:26  doi:10.1186/1744-9081-9-26

Published: 1 July 2013



A significant debate surrounds the nature of the cognitive mechanisms involved in non-symbolic number estimation. Several studies have suggested the existence of the same cognitive system for estimation of time, space, and number, called “a theory of magnitude” (ATOM). In addition, researchers have proposed the theory that non-symbolic number abilities might support our mathematical skills. Despite the large number of studies carried out, no firm conclusions can be drawn on either topic.


In the present study, we correlated the performance of adults on non-symbolic magnitude estimations and symbolic numerical tasks. Non-symbolic magnitude abilities were assessed by asking participants to estimate which auditory tone lasted longer (time), which line was longer (space), and which group of dots was more numerous (number). To assess symbolic numerical abilities, participants were required to perform mental calculations and mathematical reasoning.


We found a positive correlation between non-symbolic and symbolic numerical abilities. On the other hand, no correlation was found among non-symbolic estimations of time, space, and number.


Our study supports the idea that mathematical abilities rely on rudimentary numerical skills that predate verbal language. By contrast, the lack of correlation among non-symbolic estimations of time, space, and number is incompatible with the idea that these magnitudes are entirely processed by the same cognitive system.

Subitizing; ANS; OTS; Mathematical achievement; ATOM