MAASTRICHT. Small numbers belong on the left, large numbers on the right. Most Western people, who are used to writing from left to right, will instinctively agree with this. This is referred to as the natural number line, the way in which you arrange numbers in your head. Does one’s attention automatically go to the left when one thinks of a small number and to the right when one thinks of a large one? This is what Hannah Boeijkens, who is now doing the research master’s of Cognitive Neuroscience, wondered in her bachelor’s thesis.
To test this theory, Boeijkens used a TMS, a method used to stimulate certain parts of the brain. “If you place this on someone’s visual cortex (the part of the brain that is related to visual perception, ed.), then that person can start to see things that are not there. Small spots of light in the corners of their eyes, comparable to what some people see when they suffering a bad migraine.”
On the basis of these spots of light, Boeijkens can see in what direction someone’s attention has gone. “If it was to the left, the test subjects saw more spots on the left-hand side and if it was to the right, they saw more spots on the right-hand side.” Her argument: when people look at small numbers, their attention will go more to the left and therefore they will see more spots of light on the left-hand side.
Her research did not yield any real results. “We only had a small group, consisting of eight people. There was a problem with data analysis for four of them. This research has been carried out on a larger scale before, and the hypothesis was proven at the time. I specifically focused on the moment when attention went to the left or to the right. Because the measurements were correct for only four people, this did not provide significant results.” Boeijkens feels at times that this was a pity. “There were no results in my previous research either, a Marble project in my second year about the inner timeline. But ultimately it is about the learning process. The fact that there are no results, can also mean something.”
The VSNU, the association of universities, felt the same. Boeijkens was allowed to present her research during the annual Student Research Conference at the end of November. “A good sign, that this kind of research is also appreciated. People often ask: what is the use of this? There is no immediate use, but if we really want to know how the brain works, it is important. It is fundamental research.”