Camilla Caponi, Paula Andrea Maldonado Moscoso, Elisa Castaldi, Roberto Arrighi and Paolo Grasso

EEG signature of grouping strategies in numerosity perception

Frontiers in Neuroscience

https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2023.1190317 Download

The moment we see a group of objects, we can appreciate its numerosity. Our numerical estimates can be imprecise for large sets (>4 items), but they become much faster and more accurate if items are clustered into groups compared to when they are randomly displaced. This phenomenon, termed groupitizing, is thought to leverage on the capacity to quickly identify groups from 1 to 4 items (subitizing) within larger sets, however evidence in support for this hypothesis is scarce. The present study searched for an electrophysiological signature of subitizing while participants estimated grouped numerosities exceeding this range by measuring event-related potential (ERP) responses to visual arrays of different numerosities and spatial configurations. The EEG signal was recorded while 22 participants performed a numerosity estimation task on arrays with numerosities in the subitizing (3 or 4) or estimation (6 or 8) ranges. In the latter case, items could be spatially arranged into subgroups (3 or 4) or randomly scattered. In both ranges, we observed a decrease in N1 peak latency as the number of items increased. Importantly, when items were arranged to form subgroups, we showed that the N1 peak latency reflected both changes in total numerosity and changes in the number of subgroups. However, this result was mainly driven by the number of subgroups to suggest that clustered elements might trigger the recruitment of the subitizing system at a relatively early stage. At a later stage, we found that P2p was mostly modulated by the total numerosity in the set, with much less sensitivity for the number of subgroups these might be segregated in. Overall, this experiment suggests that the N1 component is sensitive to both local and global parcelling of elements in a scene suggesting that it could be crucially involved in the emergence of the groupitizing advantage. On the other hand, the later P2p component seems to be much more bounded to the global aspects of the scene coding the total number of elements while being mostly blind to the number of subgroups in which elements are parsed.