Your favorite number is special (to you): Evidence for item-level differences in retrieval of information from numerals

Publication date: August 2018
Source:Neuropsychologia, Volume 117
Author(s): Danielle S. Dickson, Kara D. Federmeier
Arabic numerals have come to be used for many purposes beyond representing a particular quantity (e.g., as a label for an athlete on their jersey), but it remains to be determined how this type of meaningfulness is accessed and utilized by readers. Motivated by previous work showing that item-level ratings of personal familiarity can influence traditional indices of memory retrieval, we recorded ERPs while participants read double-digit Arabic numerals (e.g., “65”), presented in a list, and rated whether or not each was familiar/personally meaningful. All numbers repeated after a few intervening trials. The effect of number repetition on the N400 was not impacted by subjective judgments of familiarity, suggesting that all numbers (personally meaningful or not) make initial contact with semantics, facilitating semantic access on second exposure. However, consistent with findings from prior studies of memory for letter strings and visual patterns, there was a late positivity (LPC) on second presentation, selective to numbers rated as familiar. This is the first electrophysiological evidence that readers can use Arabic numerals to guide explicit retrieval of non-numerical information.