Anobile G., Castaldi E., Turi M., Tinelli F., Burr D. C.
Considerable recent work suggests that mathematical abilities in children correlate with the ability to estimate numerosity. Does math correlate only with numerosity estimation, or also with other similar tasks? We measured discrimination thresholds of school-age (6- to 12.5-years-old) children in 3 tasks: numerosity of patterns of relatively sparse, segregatable items (24 dots); numerosity of very dense textured patterns (250 dots); and discrimination of direction of motion. Thresholds in all tasks improved with age, but at different rates, implying the action of different mechanisms: In particular, in young children, thresholds were lower for sparse than textured patterns (the opposite of adults), suggesting earlier maturation of numerosity mechanisms. Importantly, numerosity thresholds for sparse stimuli correlated strongly with math skills, even after controlling for the influence of age, gender and nonverbal IQ. However, neither motion-direction discrimination nor numerosity discrimination of texture patterns showed a significant correlation with math abilities. These results provide further evidence that numerosity and texture-density are perceived by independent neural mechanisms, which develop at different rates; and importantly, only numerosity mechanisms are related to math. As developmental dyscalculia is characterized by a profound deficit in discriminating numerosity, it is fundamental to understand the mechanism behind the discrimination.