Brain potentials during mental arithmetic: effects of extensive practice and problem difficulty

Paul Pauli, Werner Lutzenberger, Harald Rau, Niels Birbaumer, Timothy C. Rickard, Rita A. Yaroush, Lyle E. Bourne

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Recent behavioral investigations indicate that the processes underlying mental arithmetic change systematically with practice from deliberate, conscious calculation to automatic, direct retrieval of answers from memory [Bourne, L.E.Jr. and Rickard, T.C., Mental calculation: The development of a cognitive skill, Paper presented at the Interamerican Congress of Psychology, San Jose, Costa Rica, 1991; Psychol. Rev., 95 (1988) 492-527]. Results reviewed by Moscovitch and Winocur [In: The handbook of aging and cognition, Erlbaum, Hillsdale, NJ, 1992, pp. 315-372] suggest that consciously controlled processes are more dependent on frontal lobe function than are automatic processes. It is appropriate, therefore to determine whether transitions in the locus of primary brain activity occur with practice on mental calculation. In this experiment, we examine the relationship between characteristics of event-related brain potentials (ERPs) and mental arithmetic. Single-digit mental multiplication problems varying in difficulty (problem size) were used, and subjects were trained on these problems for four sessions. Problem-size and practice effects were reliably found in behavioral measures (RT). The ERP was characterized by a pronounced late positivity after task presentation followed by a slow wave, and a negativity during response indication. These components responded differentially to the practice and problem-size manipulations. Practice mainly affected topography of the amplitude of positivity and offset latency of slow wave, and problem-size mainly offset latency of slow wave and pre-response negativity. Fronto-central positivity diminished from session to session, and the focus of positivity centered finally at centro-parietal regions. This finding suggests that frontal lobe processing is necessary as long as task performance is not automatized, while automatized arithmetic processing requires parietal brain activity only. The pre-response negativity observed in the first session and during more difficult tasks is assumed to reflect excitatory preparatory processes, which could be associated with activation of calculation strategies.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)21-29
Number of pages9
JournalCognitive Brain Research
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1994


  • Automatization
  • Event-related potential
  • Mental arithmetic
  • Practice
  • Problem size

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Behavioral Neuroscience
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology


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