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The neural representation of ordinal information: domain-specific or domain-general?


Ordinal processing allows for the representation of the sequential relations between stimuli and is a fundamental aspect of different cognitive domains such as verbal working memory (WM), language and numerical cognition. Several studies suggest common ordinal coding mechanisms across these different domains but direct between-domain comparisons of ordinal coding are rare and have led to contradictory evidence. This fMRI study examined the commonality of ordinal representations across the WM, the number and the letter domains by using a multivoxel pattern analysis approach and by focusing on triplet stimuli associated with robust ordinal distance effects. Neural patterns in fronto-parietal cortices distinguished ordinal distance in all domains. Critically, between-task predictions of ordinal distance in fronto-parietal cortices were robust between serial order WM, alphabetical order judgment but not when involving the numerical order judgment tasks. Moreover, frontal ROIs further supported between-task prediction of distance for the luminance judgment control task, the serial order WM and the alphabetical tasks. These results suggest that common neural substrates characterize processing of ordinal information in WM and alphabetical but not numerical domains. This commonality, particularly in frontal cortices, may however reflect attentional control processes involved in judging ordinal distances rather than the intervention of domain-general ordinal codes.

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