Frontiers in Psychology
In the past few years, many studies have suggested that subjects with high sensory precision in the processing of non-symbolic numerical quantities (approximate number system; ANS) also have higher math abilities. At the same time, there has been interest in another non-cognitive factor affecting mathematical learning: mathematical anxiety (MA). MA is defined as a debilitating emotional reaction to mathematics that interferes with the manipulation of numbers and the solving of mathematical problems. Few studies have been dedicated to uncovering the interplay between ANS and MA and those have provided conflicting evidence. Here we measured ANS precision (numerosity discrimination thresholds) in a cohort of university students with either a high (>75th percentile; n=49) or low (< 25th percentile; n=39) score on the Abbreviate Math Anxiety scale (AMAS). We also assessed math proficiency using a standardized test (MPP: Mathematics Prerequisites for Psychometrics), visuo-spatial attention capacity by means of a Multiple Objects Tracking task (MOT) and sensory precision for non-numerical quantities (disk size). Our results confirmed previous studies showing that math abilities and ANS precision correlate in subjects with high math anxiety. Neither precision in size-discrimination nor visuo-spatial attentional capacity were found to correlate with math capacities. Interestingly, within the group with high MA, our data also revealed a relationship between ANS precision and MA, with MA playing a key role in mediating the correlation between ANS and math achievement. Taken together, our results suggest an interplay between extreme levels of MA and the sensory precision in the processing of non-symbolic numerosity.