Abstract

Numerosity perception is largely governed by two mechanisms. The first so-called subitizing system allows one to enumerate a small number of items (up to three or four) without error. The second system allows only an approximate estimation of larger numerosities. Here, we investigate the neural bases of the two systems using sequentially presented numerosity. Sequential numerosity (i.e., the number of events presented over time) starts as a subitizable set but may eventually transition into a larger numerosity in the approximate estimation range, thus offering a unique opportunity to investigate the neural signature of that transition point, or subitizing boundary. If sequential numerosity is encoded by two distinct perceptual mechanisms (i.e., for subitizing and approximate estimation), neural representations of the sequentially presented items crossing the subitizing boundary should be sharply distinguishable. In contrast, if sequential numerosity is encoded by a single perceptual mechanism for all numerosities and subitizing is achieved through an external postperceptual mechanism, no such differences in the neural representations should indicate the subitizing boundary. Using the high temporal resolution of the EEG technique incorporating a multivariate decoding analysis, we found results consistent with the latter hypothesis: No sharp representational distinctions were observed between items across the subitizing boundary, which is in contrast with the behavioral pattern of subitizing. The results support a single perceptual mechanism encoding sequential numerosities, whereas subitizing may be supported by a postperceptual attentional mechanism operating at a later processing stage.

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