Counting on the mental number line to make a move: sensorimotor ('pen') control and numerical processing

Rebecca Sheridan, Maaike van Rooijen, Oscar Giles, Faisal Mushtaq, Bert Steenbergen, Mark Mon-Williams, Amanda Waterman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Mathematics is often conducted with a writing implement. But is there a relationship between numerical processing and sensorimotor 'pen' control? We asked participants to move a stylus so it crossed an unmarked line at a location specified by a symbolic number (1-9), where number colour indicated whether the line ran left-right ('normal') or vice versa ('reversed'). The task could be simplified through the use of a 'mental number line' (MNL). Many modern societies use number lines in mathematical education and the brain's representation of number appears to follow a culturally determined spatial organisation (so better task performance is associated with this culturally normal orientation-the MNL effect). Participants (counter-balanced) completed two consistent blocks of trials, 'normal' and 'reversed', followed by a mixed block where line direction varied randomly. Experiment 1 established that the MNL effect was robust, and showed that the cognitive load associated with reversing the MNL not only affected response selection but also the actual movement execution (indexed by duration) within the mixed trials. Experiment 2 showed that an individual's motor abilities predicted performance in the difficult (mixed) condition but not the easier blocks. These results suggest that numerical processing is not isolated from motor capabilities-a finding with applied consequences.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3141-3152
Number of pages12
JournalExperimental brain research. Experimentelle Hirnforschung. Expérimentation cérébrale
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 27 Oct 2017


  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mathematical Concepts
  • Middle Aged
  • Motor Activity/physiology
  • Motor Skills/physiology
  • Space Perception/physiology
  • Young Adult

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