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Changing the precision of preschoolers' approximate number system representations changes their symbolic math performance.


From early in life, humans have access to an approximate number system (ANS) that supports an intuitive sense of numerical quantity. Previous work in both children and adults suggests that individual differences in the precision of ANS representations correlate with symbolic math performance. However, this work has been almost entirely correlational in nature. Here we tested for a causal link between ANS precision and symbolic math performance by asking whether a temporary modulation of ANS precision changes symbolic math performance. First, we replicated a recent finding that 5-year-old children make more precise ANS discriminations when starting with easier trials and gradually progressing to harder ones, compared with the reverse. Next, we show that this brief modulation of ANS precision influenced children's performance on a subsequent symbolic math task but not a vocabulary task. In a supplemental experiment, we present evidence that children who performed ANS discriminations in a random trial order showed intermediate performance on both the ANS task and the symbolic math task, compared with children who made ordered discriminations. Thus, our results point to a specific causal link from the ANS to symbolic math performance.