Symbolic and non-symbolic number sense

Educational neuroscience research has increased our understanding of the very early skills (also called biologically primary skills) needed for the successful learning of mathematics skills (Butterworth, Varma, & Laurillard, 2011). Neuroscientists suggest that there is a basic preverbal number sense (also called an approximate representation of magnitude), which refers to the ability to discriminate numerical magnitudes (Ansari, 2008). Number sense is already present prior to the emergence of symbolic number representation. This skill is also present in some animals (Dehaene, Dehaene-Lambertz, & Cohen, 1998). In some slightly broader definitions, number sense also includes the ability to discriminate the magnitudes represented by number symbols (De Smedt, Noël, Gilmore, & Ansari, 2013). Research suggests that deficits in the representation and processing of numerical magnitude information are at the core of severe mathematical learning difficulties (Price & Ansari, 2013).



  • Ansari, D. (2008). Effects of development and enculturation on number representation in the brain. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 9, 278–291.
  • Butterworth, B., Varma, S., & Laurillard, D. (2011). Dyscalculia: From brain to education. Science, 27(6033), 1049–1053. doi:10.1126/science.1201536
  • Dehaene, S., Dehaene-Lambertz, G., & Cohen, L. (1998). Abstract representation of number in the animal and human brain. Neurosciences,21(8), 355–361.
  • De Smedt, B., Noël, M. P., Gilmore, C., & Ansari, D. (2013). How do symbolic and non-symbolic numerical magnitude processing skills relate to individual differences in children’s mathematical skills? A review of evidence from brain and behaviour. Trends in Neuroscience and Education, 2(2), 48–55. doi:10.1016/j.tine.2013.06.001
  • Price, G. R., & Ansari, D. (2013). Dyscalculia: Characteristics, causes, and treatments. Numeracy,6(1), article 2.