Cicchini, G. M., Anobile, G., & Burr, D. C. (2019).
Spontaneous representation of numerosity in typical and dyscalculic development. Cortex. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cortex.2018.11.019.
Animals including humans are endowed with a remarkable capacity to estimate rapidly the number of items in a scene. Some have questioned whether this ability reflects a genuine sense of number, or whether numerosity is derived indirectly from other covarying attributes, such as density and area. In previous work we have demonstrated that adult observers are more sensitive to changes in numerosity than to area or density, particularly changes that leave numerosity constant, pointing to a spontaneous sensitivity to numerosity, not attributable to area and density. Here we extend this line of research with a novel technique where participants reproduce the size and density of a dot-array. They were given no explicit instructions of what to match, but could regulate freely all combinations of area and density by trackpad. If the task is mediated by matching separately area and texture-density, the errors in the two attributes have to be independent. Contrarily to this prediction, we found that errors in area and density were negatively correlated, suggesting that subjects matched numerosity, rather than area and density. We employed this technique to investigate processing of number in adolescents with typical and low math abilities (dyscalculia). Interestingly, we found that dyscalculics also reproduced numerosity rather than area or density. However, compared to typicals, dyscalculics had longer reaction times, a tendency to rely also on area, and their performance did not improve over sessions. Taken together, the data demonstrate that numerosity emerges as the most spontaneous and sensitive dimension, supporting the existence of a dedicated number sense and confirm numerosity atypicalities in dyscalculia.