Parallel and serial processes in number-to-quantity conversion

Dror Dotan, Stanislas Dehaene

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

Converting a multi-digit number to quantity requires processing not only the digits but also the number's decimal structure, thus raising several issues. First, are all the digits processed in parallel, or serially from left to right? Second, given that the same digit at different places can represent different quantities (e.g., “2” can mean 2, 20, etc.), how is each digit assigned to its correct decimal role? We presented participants with two-digit numbers and asked them to point at the corresponding locations on a number line, while we recorded their pointing trajectory. Crucially, on some trials, the decade and unit digits did not appear simultaneously. When the decade digit was delayed, the decade effect on finger movement was delayed by the same amount. However, a lag in presenting the unit digit delayed the unit effect by 35 ms less than the lag duration, a pattern reminiscent of the psychological refractory period, indicating an idle time window of 35 ms in the units processing pathway. When a lag transiently caused a display of just one digit on screen, the unit effect increased and the decade effect decreased, suggesting errors in binding digits to decimal roles. We propose that a serial bottleneck is imposed by the creation of a syntactic frame for the multidigit number, a process launched by the leftmost digit. All other stages, including the binding of digits to decimal roles, quantification, and merging them into a whole-number quantity, appear to operate in parallel across digits, suggesting a remarkable degree of parallelism in expert readers.

Original languageEnglish
Article number104387
JournalCognition
Volume204
DOIs
StatePublished - Nov 2020

Keywords

  • Mental number line
  • Multi-digit numbers
  • Number representation
  • Number syntax
  • Serial and parallel processing

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