Developing Intelligence

Much has been written about the nonspatial functions of the parietal lobe, but these nonspatial functions are rarely evaluated as to whether they are also nonmotoric or reflect some covert form of spatial attention. Establishing whether the parietal lobe has truly nonmotoric and nonspatial functions is essential for understanding why parietal cortex appears to be involved in so many different tasks. Here I’ve attempted to evaluate whether the parietal lobe truly has nonspatial, and perhaps also nonmotoric functions by reviewing the relevant literature…

Magnitude processing – the size congruity effect. The size congruity effect refers to facilitation and interference observed when subjects must name the physically larger of two digits with different numerical values appearing in different size fonts. Facilitation is observed in the form of speeded reaction times when physical size and numerical value are congruent between the two digit pairs (e.g., a large “5″ and a small “2″), and interference is observed when the two are incongruent (e.g., a small “5″ and a large “2″) relative to a neutral condition (e.g., “5″ vs “2″ in the same size font). Neuroimaging shows that the intraparietal sulcus is more active for congruent pairs than incongruent pairs, despite the time-on-task difference between conditions, indicating that IPS may be a common locus for magnitude processing (whether of physical size or of numerical value), in line with Walsh’s hypothesis for domain-general representations of magnitude in the parietal cortex. Recently, Kadosh et al. have shown that IPS doesn’t merely correlate with magnitude processing but is in fact critical for it: disruption of right (but not left) IPS activity through TMS reproduces the deficits observed in dyscalculic populations, in which no facilitation is observed when size and magnitude are congruent. This latter result rules out a purely motoric role for parietal cortex in the size-congruity effect: it is not the case that more parietal activity merely speeds responding in a fashion that is independent of magnitude, since the facilitation effect was not observed after TMS.

Numerical processing – the number line. Even when subjects are given no task, the appearance of numbers triggers activity in IPS, and IPS activity appears to habituate to the particular values used, as indicated by a notation-independent but distance-dependent rebound effect observed in IPS in response to numbers that are numerically deviant (shown by Piazza et al). This data again rules out purely spatial or motoric roles for parietal cortex, since subjects are not given a task. Similarly, as reviewed by Hubbard et al., patients with parietal damage are impaired at reporting the numerical midpoint between two numbers: with numbers like 3 and 12, these patients tend to respond with numbers larger than 7.5, whereas with smaller numbers and inter-number intervals (e.g., 1 vs 2) these patients tend to respond with numbers smaller than the actual numerical midpoint. These symptoms are observed only among patients with parietal damage who show spatial neglect, and like spatial neglect, it can be remediated when leftward-adapting prismatic glasses are worn. Again, this rules out a purely spatial role for parietal cortex, since there is no apriori reason for a spatial manipulation (like the wearing of prismatic glasses) to influence magnitude processing – unless there is some intrinsic connection between how the two are represented in the brain.

Detection of salient items in a sequence – Attentional Blink and Oddball tasks. The temporo parietal junction, inferior to the intraparietal sulcus, has been consistently activated in studies of the attentional blink (in which subjects cannot report the second of two rapidly presented stimuli, if the second follows the first within a window of ~100-500ms). Similar activity is observed in oddball paradigms, which also require detection of one event embedded in a sequence of other events – even when the tasks require no eye or limb movements nor any (spatial) shifts of attention (according to Husain & Nachev). Likewise, Wojciulik & Kanwisher showed that both posterior & anterior sections of the intraparietal sulcus were active in an RSVP task).

Working memory maintenance. The superior parietal lobe, as well as the intraparietal sulcus, have been implicated in the maintenance of information over delays; in the most compelling finding from this literature, individual differences in working memory capacity can be predicted by activity in this region of the brain. Kawasaki et al have shown that SPL activity also occurs regardless of whether the information maintained in working memory is color, shape, or motion-related, and that it is memory-load dependent in a way that cannot be explained by motor intentions or preparation (using a single-item change detection paradigm). Xu has also shown that unlike the inferior parietal lobe, the superior intraparietal sulcus shows activation profiles that closely match the total amount of feature information being maintained in memory (e.g., color & shape information) whereas inferior parietal activity more closely tracks the total number of integrated objects that are being maintained in memory (e.g., Xu & Chun 2006).

Selective Attention and Orienting. Closely related to the “oddball” section above, Humphreys et al. examined patients with parietal lobe damage (and signs of Balint’s syndrome) and showed that they are impaired not only at detecting stimuli in their contralesional visual field, but also at perceiving words in the presence of pictures: regardless of whether the words were presented above or below the pictures, they cannot be detected when pictures are also present. This holds for pictures of real life objects as well as novel shapes, which Humphreys et al interpret as reflecting the parietal lobe’s capacity for remediating nonspatial attentional biases. (It is possible, though, that parietal cortex overcomes these nonspatial biases with a spatially-based representation).

There are no doubt many more examples of nonspatial, nonmotoric functions of the parietal lobe. The crucial question is, however, why the parietal cortex should show such flexible information processing given that it is clearly so important for spatial and motoric functions. In other words, what aspect of the parietal cortex’s capacity for motoric & spatial processing yields it a capacity for active maintenance, and the processing of magnitude and order information?


  1. #1 Andy McKenzie
    September 16, 2008

    Perhaps because these functions–spatial and motoric–are so crucial and difficult to form independently that the parietal cortex is an ideal place for other parts of the brain to co-opt processes from. (I’m sure you’ve thought of this, I’m just pointing out the obvious.)

  2. #2 Ray Ingles
    September 16, 2008

    what aspect of the parietal cortex’s capacity for motoric & spatial processing yields it a capacity for active maintenance, and the processing of magnitude and order information?

    Forgive me for amateur speculation, and I’m not sure about active maintenance, but…

    Magnitude and order processing would seem to be vital for spatial processing. The size of objects is, well, inherently spatial – and for representing objects, both their relative and absolute sizes are critical.

    Is it possible that structures for representing magnitude and order evolved in response to the need for spatial processing, and were co-opted for other purposes (such as the ‘number line’) later?

  3. #3 Luci
    September 20, 2008

    Micropsia, macropsia – how does magnitude processing and malfunctioning concern the IPS and where’s the crossover with its temporal neighbor? Chris is on the case.

    ‘All right,’ said the Sirian. ‘This thing which seems to you to be divisible, weighable, and grey, would you mind telling me what it is? You can see some of its attributes, but what about the nature of the thing? Do you understand that?’
    ‘No.’ said the other.
    ‘In which case you don’t know what matter is.’

    No harm in a snip from a most scalable tale:’Micromegas’. Jonah L. tells us of Proust’s neuroscience observations, but let’s not forget Voltaire, even if the grey object in question is a stone rather than a brain.

  4. #4 Al Fin
    September 25, 2008

    Very interesting and extremely important for understanding the limits and possiblities of human cognition. The multiplexing capacity of neuronal connectionist architecture is likely an ad hoc process–facilitated and constrained by brain plasticity but guided by cultural/environmental factors during development.

    It suggests possiblities for design of brain prosthetic devices to provide cognitive sub-processes which may not have developed optimally in certain children and adolescents. (or in most) Such prosthetics will depend on vastly improved brain-machine interface technology.

  5. #5 Daniel Massey
    December 17, 2008

    Chris, or others,

    I had a grade 2 astrocytoma in my R parietal lobe ~ 1.5″ dia resected in March 08. My specialty was machine design. I feel as I have lost the ability to design, I have difficulty seing a solution to a physical problem in my mind. I cannot draw well anymore either.

    I am looking for information to see if the loss is just my imagination, (parietal lobe functions traditionally being listed as motor function) or is it possible that what I am experiencing is real and due to the trauma.

    Please help!

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.