Department of Psychology
Louisiana State University
Baton Rouge, LA 70803
Office Phone: (225) 578-3436
Eric Wilkey earned his M. Ed. in Mind, Brain and Education from Harvard, his PhD in Neuroscience from Vanderbilt University, and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Western University in London, Ontario. His research focuses broadly on the development of mathematical skills and the neurocognitive mechanisms that enable mathematical cognition using behavioral and neuroimaging methods, particularly structural and functional MRI.
Dr. Wilkey is currently accepting new graduate students.
Executive Function and Math
When we do anything mathematical, from calculating change in a checkout line to figuring out which mortgage to choose, we engage a host of neurocognitive mechanisms. Some of these mechanisms are domain-specific, meaning that they are relevant mostly for mathematical thought (e.g. processing numerical quantities). Other neurocognitive mechanisms are engaged more generally across activities, such as orienting attention, working memory, inhibition, and flexibly applying rules (i.e. executive functions). But, how do domain-specific and domain-general mechanisms interact biologically when we do mathematical tasks? And, can understanding their cooperation inform our understanding of math development? We have much to learn about how representation of number and mathematical knowledge works with the neural mechanisms of executive functioning. But, based on the behavioral literature, we do know that this link is very important. Several lines of my current and planned research are focused on this theme.
Math Learning Difficulties and Developmental Dyscalculia
An estimated 3-6% of the population is affected by the specific mathematics learning disability developmental dyscalculia. Individuals with dyscalculia display difficulties with fundamental aspects of numerical processing from very early ages and continue to struggle with math, even when given the same schooling opportunities as their peers. A further 10-20% of the population have so much trouble with math that it hinders their ability to use numerical information effectively in adult life. However, the nature of these numerical and mathematical difficulties and their developmental trajectories remain poorly understood. By understanding the neurocognitive roots of math difficulties, I hope to do research that informs pedagogical techniques for struggling learners, diagnosis of learning disabilities, and ultimately supports the development of math skills for all learners.
Representations of Number
From very early in development, humans and many other animals can perceive information about the number of items in a group of objects, for example, when we estimate
the number of people in a line or apples on a tree. This ability is a foundational aspect of thinking mathematically. However, the majority of formalized mathematics relies on symbolic number, including the use of Arabic digits and number words. And, while nonsymbolic numerical perception is an evolutionarily ancient cognitive ability that humans share with other animals, symbolic number is a relatively recent cultural invention. Symbolic number systems enable more complex numerical cognition where the same number can take on an ordinal (e.g. the 9th object) or nominal (e.g. the No. 9 bus) nature as well as describe the complex way that numbers relate to one another (e.g. 5 + 4 = 9). Much like written language, symbolic number is unique to humans and too recent in the evolution of the human brain to have dedicated neural circuitry. So, how does the brain accomplish symbolic mathematical processing? Do these symbolic and nonsymbolic representations of number rely on the same neural mechanisms? And, how does a culturally learned sense of number develop over or alongside a more pre-programmed and innate sense of nonsymbolic number through formal instruction? These questions are fundamental to understanding the development of numerical abilities.
If you are interested in participating in lab research, please contact Dr. Wilkey at firstname.lastname@example.org . Research assistants participate in participant recruitment, data collection, design of experiments and experimental materials, analysis and data entry.