BGU psychology professor wins $2.6 million grant to study numerical cognition

December 21, 2011

BEER-SHEVA, Israel -- Prof. Avishai Henik of the Department of Psychology at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) has won a prestigious European Research Council grant of more than $2.6 million (€2 million) for advanced research in the abilities and deficiencies of numerical cognition.

The goal of the study, "Size Matters in Numerical Cognition," is to determine how important the ability to perceive and evaluate size is to the development of numerical ability. For example, it is possible that comparison of sizes and amounts (which glass has more water?) and evaluation of continuous magnitudes (how much water is in the glass?) are core abilities.

These skills are the basis for the development of numerical cognition. The research will examine human abilities in this area, the underlying brain system involved, and the possibility that this system (perception and evaluation of sizes and amounts) is the very first system (i.e., core system) that helps develop basic numerical skills.

It will include research on children and adults who experience typical development of numerical concepts and mathematical thinking, and children and adults who suffer from atypical numerical cognition development.

Additionally, the research will include work with lower animal species. Fish do not have a cerebral cortex, which is thought to be central in mental arithmetic, but they are still able to evaluate sizes very well. The research will also examine computational aspects (evolutionary algorithms) of the issues described above.

"In the last two decades, we have witnessed impressive strides forward in studies of numerical cognition and its deficiencies. The accepted view is that we are born with an innate ability to compare quantities; children learn very early to count, understand the numerical system, and acquire what is generally called the number sense," explains Henik.

"Most researchers agree that the number sense is based on a core system centered on the ability to count and to compare different groups of items. Moreover, it has been suggested that various mathematical difficulties are due to a deficiency in this core system. Three to six percent of the population suffers from congenital difficulties in this area or what is generally termed developmental dyscalculia (DD) or mathematical learning disability (MLD). Interestingly, the prevalence of DD is similar to that of developmental dyslexia, but DD has been much less studied. Only in the last few years have we seen an effort to close the gap in the study of these two learning difficulties," he added.

"With respect to difficulties in arithmetic, an interesting question is whether such difficulties are due to problems in perception and evaluation of sizes, or from a difficulty in associating sizes with numerical symbols. If a difficulty in perceiving and evaluating sizes exists and is connected to mathematical disability, it might be possible to identify such difficulty very early on, even before children start learning arithmetic," he said.

The research will be carried out at the University's cognitive neuropsychology laboratory in conjunction with researchers from BGU's Departments of Life Sciences and Computer Sciences. Henik is the incumbent of the Zlotowski Chair in Cognitive Neuropsychology, a former dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences and chairman of the Department of Behavioral Sciences.

The ERC Advanced Grant targets researchers who have already established themselves as independent research leaders in their own right. The purpose of the grant is to enable high-risk or unconventional research that could lead to major breakthroughs in the field. The grants are awarded in any research field for five years. The proposal is BGU's first ERC advanced grant, although University faculty members have won several starting or early-career grants.

Prof. Avishai Henik with a student

The number 3: There is incongruence in this drawing because the 8 is supposed to be larger than the 3. When asked which number is larger, it takes us longer to respond because the displayed 3 is bigger than the displayed 8. With respect to difficulties in arithmetic, an interesting question is whether such difficulties are due to problems in perception and evaluation of sizes, or from a difficulty in associating sizes with numerical symbols.

American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev plays a vital role in sustaining David Ben-Gurion's vision, creating a world-class institution of education and research in the Israeli desert, nurturing the Negev community and sharing the University's expertise locally and around the globe. With some 20,000 students on campuses in Beer-Sheva, Sede Boqer and Eilat in Israel's southern desert, BGU is a university with a conscience, where the highest academic standards are integrated with community involvement, committed to sustainable development of the Negev. For more information, please visit

American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

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