On the origins of logarithmic number-to-position mapping

Dror Dotan*, Stanislas Dehaene

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The number-to-position task, in which children and adults are asked to place numbers on a spatial number line, has become a classic measure of number comprehension. We present a detailed experimental and theoretical dissection of the processing stages that underlie this task. We used a continuous fingertracking technique, which provides detailed information about the time course of processing stages. When adults map the position of 2-digit numbers onto a line, their final mapping is essentially linear, but intermediate finger location show a transient logarithmic mapping. We identify the origins of this log effect: Small numbers are processed faster than large numbers, so the finger deviates toward the target position earlier for small numbers than for large numbers. When the trajectories are aligned on the finger deviation onset, the log effect disappears. The small-number advantage and the log effect are enhanced in dual-task setting and are further enhanced when the delay between the 2 tasks is shortened, suggesting that these effects originate from a central stage of quantification and decision making. We also report cases of logarithmic mapping-by children and by a brain-injured individual-which cannot be explained by faster responding to small numbers. We show that these findings are captured by an ideal-observer model of the number-to-position mapping task, comprising 3 distinct stages: a quantification stage, whose duration is influenced by both exact and approximate representations of numerical quantity; a Bayesian accumulation-of-evidence stage, leading to a decision about the target location; and a pointing stage.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)637-666
Number of pages30
JournalPsychological Review
Issue number6
StatePublished - 1 Nov 2016


  • Mental number line
  • Number representation
  • Numerical estimation
  • Two-digit numbers


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