Psychophysical evidence for the number sense, Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci, 1740 (373).

It is now clear that most animals, including humans, possess an ability to rapidly estimate number. Some have questioned whether this ability arises from dedicated numerosity mechanisms, or is derived indirectly from judgements of density or other attributes. We describe a series of psychophysical experiments, largely using adaptation techniques, which demonstrate clearly the existence of a number sense in humans. The number sense is truly general, extending over space, time and sensory modality, and is closely linked with action. We further show that when multiple cues are present, numerosity emerges as the natural dimension for discrimination. However, when element density increases past a certain level, the elements become too crowded to parse, and the scene is perceived as a texture rather than array of elements. The two different regimes are psychophysically discriminable in that they follow distinct psychophysical laws, and show different dependencies on eccentricity, luminance levels and effects of perceptual grouping. The distinction is important, as the ability to discriminate numerosity, but not texture, correlates with formal maths skills.This article is part of the discussion meeting issue ‘The origins of numerical abilities’.

Connecting Visual Objects Reduces Perceived Numerosity and Density for Sparse but not Dense Patterns, Journal of Numerical Cognition, 4 (3).

How is numerosity encoded by the visual system? – directly, or derived indirectly from texture density? We recently suggested that the numerosity of sparse patterns is encoded directly by dedicated mechanisms (which have been described as the “Approximate Number System” ANS). However, at high dot densities, where items become “crowded” and difficult to segregate, “texture-density” mechanisms come into play. Here we tested the importance of item segmentation on numerosity and density perception at various stimulus densities, by measuring the effect of connecting visual objects with thin lines. The results confirmed many previous studies showing that connecting items robustly reduces the apparent numerosity of patterns of moderate density. We further showed that the apparent density of moderate-density patterns is also reduced by connecting the dots. Crucially, we found that both these effects are strongly reduced at higher numerosities. Indeed for density judgments, the effect reverses, so connecting dots in dense patterns increases the apparent density (as expected from the physical characteristics). The results provide clear support for the three-regime framework of number perception, and suggest that for moderately sparse stimuli, numerosity – but not texture-density – is perceived directly.