A biological foundation for spatial–numerical associations: The brain’s asymmetric frequency tuning

Arianna Felisatti, Jochen Laubrock, Samuel Shaki, Martin H. Fischer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

22 Scopus citations


“Left” and “right” coordinates control our spatial behavior and even influence abstract thoughts. For number con-cepts, horizontal spatial–numerical associations (SNAs) have been widely documented: we associate few with left and many with right. Importantly, increments are universally coded on the right side even in preverbal humans and nonhuman animals, thus questioning the fundamental role of directional cultural habits, such as reading or finger counting. Here, we propose a biological, nonnumerical mechanism for the origin of SNAs on the basis of asymmetric tuning of animal brains for different spatial frequencies (SFs). The resulting selective visual processing predicts both universal SNAs and their context-dependence. We support our proposal by analyzing the stimuli used to doc-ument SNAs in newborns for their SF content. As predicted, the SFs contained in visual patterns with few versus many elements preferentially engage right versus left brain hemispheres, respectively, thus predicting left-versus rightward behavioral biases. Our “brain’s asymmetric frequency tuning” hypothesis explains the perceptual origin of horizontal SNAs for nonsymbolic visual numerosities and might be extensible to the auditory domain.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)44-53
Number of pages10
JournalAnnals of the New York Academy of Sciences
Issue number1
StatePublished - Oct 2020


  • Hemispheric asymmetry
  • Numerical cognition
  • SNARC effect
  • Spatial frequency tuning
  • Spatial vision
  • Spatial–numerical associations


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