The Impact of Symbolic and Non-Symbolic Quantity on Spatial Learning

McCrink, Koleen Cathryn; Galamba, Jennifer

An implicit mapping of number to space via a “mental number line” occurs automatically in adulthood. Here, we systematically explore the influence of differing representations of quantity (no quantity, non-symbolic magnitudes, and symbolic numbers) and directional flow of stimuli (random flow, left-to-right, or right-to-left) on learning and attention via a match-to-sample working memory task. When recalling a cognitively demanding string of spatial locations, subjects performed best when information was presented right-to-left. When non-symbolic or symbolic numerical arrays were embedded in these spatial locations, and mental number line congruency prompted, this effect was attenuated and in some cases reversed. In particular, low-performing female participants who viewed increasing non-symbolic number arrays paired with the spatial locations exhibited better recall for left-to-right directional flow information relative to right-to-left, and better processing for the left side of space relative to the right side of space. The presence of symbolic number during spatial learning enhanced recall to a greater degree than non-symbolic number—especially for female participants, and especially when cognitive load is high—and this difference was independent of directional flow of information. We conclude that quantity representations have the potential to scaffold spatial memory, but this potential is subtle, and mediated by the nature of the quantity and the gender and performance level of the learner.


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Psychology (Barnard College)
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December 14, 2015