The mental number line electrified: brain potentials in a numerical flanker task
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It has been suggested that the mental representation of numbers is spatial in nature such that numbers are ordered on a mental number line. In the present investigation we use a variant of the Eriksen flanker task requiring a magnitude decision (smaller or larger than 5) for a central target number by pressing a response button with the right or left hand. The target number is flanked by irrelevant distracters that are either identical to the target, different from the target but biasing the same response, or different from the target and biasing a different response. Response latencies and event-related brain potentials were obtained in a group of healthy adults. Besides the typical response congruency effects on response latency and the N2 component of the ERP, we observed several other effects. First, numerical distance of the target to the standard 5 influenced decision latencies and amplitude and latency of the P3 component with smaller distances leading to longer decision latencies, longer P3 latencies and smaller P3 amplitudes. Second, smaller numerical distance between target and distracters led to faster decisions for response congruent and to slower decisions for response-incongruent trials. For response-incongruent trials P3 amplitude was small/large and P3 latency was long/short for small/large distances. These findings underscore the spatial character of number representation and further show that the relation between targets and distracters, although task irrelevant, is assessed automatically with facilitatory and inhibitory effects driven by spatial distance on the mental number line.
KeywordsCongruency Effect Incongruent Trial Target Number Flanker Task Numerical Distance
Supported by grants from the DFG (SFB 779-A5) to TFM. Also supported by the BMBF (contract 01GO0202).
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