Brief Report

Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

, Volume 19, Issue 1, pp 93-100

First online:

Differences between literates and illiterates on symbolic but not nonsymbolic numerical magnitude processing

  • Samar ZebianAffiliated withSocial Science Department, Lebanese American University Email author 
  • , Daniel AnsariAffiliated withNumerical Cognition Laboratory, Department of Psychology & Graduate Program in Neuroscience, University of Western Ontario Email author 


The study of numerical magnitude processing provides a unique opportunity to examine interactions between phylogenetically ancient systems of semantic representations and those that are the product of enculturation. While nonsymbolic representations of numerical magnitude are processed similarly by humans and nonhuman animals, symbolic representations of numerical magnitude (e.g., Hindu–Arabic numerals) are culturally invented symbols that are uniquely human. Here, we report a comparison of symbolic and nonsymbolic numerical magnitude processing in two groups of participants who differ substantially in their level of literacy. In this study, level of literacy is used as an index of level of school-based numeracy skill. The data from these groups demonstrate that while the processing of nonsymbolic numerical magnitude (numerical distance effect) is unaffected by an individual’s level of literacy, the processing of Hindu–Arabic numerals differs between literate and illiterate individuals who live in a literature culture and have limited symbolic recognition skills. These findings reveal that nonsymbolic numerical magnitude processing is unaffected by enculturation, while the processing of numerical symbols is modulated by literacy.


Literacy Numerical cognition Nonsymbolic Symbolic Numerical magnitude Enculturation