Are Approximate Number System Representations Numerical?


  • Jayne Pickering Orcid
  • James S. Adelman Orcid
  • Matthew Inglis Orcid


Previous research suggests that the Approximate Number System (ANS) allows people to approximate the cardinality of a set. This ability to discern numerical quantities may explain how meaning becomes associated with number symbols. However, recently it has been argued that ANS representations are not directly numerical, but rather are formed by amalgamating perceptual features confounded with the set’s cardinality. In this paper, we approach the question of whether ANS representations are numerical by studying the properties they have, rather than how they are formed. Across two pre-registered within-subjects studies, we measured 189 participants’ ability to multiply the numbers between 2 and 8. Participants completed symbolic and nonsymbolic versions of the task. Results showed that participants succeeded at above-chance levels when multiplying nonsymbolic representations within the subitizing range (2-4) but were at chance levels when multiplying numbers within the ANS range (5-8). We conclude that, unlike Object Tracking System (OTS) representations, two ANS representations cannot be multiplied together. We suggest that investigating which numerical properties ANS representations possess may advance the debate over whether the ANS is a genuinely numerical system.