Arrighi, R., Togoli, I. & Burr, D. C. (2014).
A generalized sense of number, Proc R Soc B (2014).
Much evidence has accumulated to suggest that many animals, including young human infants, possess an abstract sense of approximate quantity, a number sense. Most research has concentrated on apparent numerosity of spatial arrays of dots or other objects, but a truly abstract sense of number should be capable of encoding the numerosity of any set of discrete elements, however displayed and in whatever sensory modality. Here, we use the psychophysical technique ofadaptation to study the sense of number for serially presented items. We show that numerosity of both auditory and visual sequences is greatly affected by prior adaptation to slow or rapid sequences of events. The adaptation to visual stimuli was spatially selective (in external, not retinal coordinates), pointing to a sensory rather than cognitive process. However, adaptation generalized across modalities, from auditory to visual and vice versa. Adaptation also generalized across formats: adapting to sequential streams of flashes affected the perceived numerosity of spatial arrays. All these results point to a perceptual system that transcends vision and audition to encode an abstract sense of number in space and in time.