The role of numerical magnitude and order in the illusory perception of size and brightness

Front Psychol. 2013 Jul 29;4:484. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00484. eCollection 2013.


Processing magnitudes constitutes a common experience across multiple dimensions, for example when one has to compare sizes, duration, numbers, sound height or loudness. From a cognitive point of view, however, it is still unclear whether all these experiences rely on a common system, or on distinct systems, with more or less strong associations. One particularly striking way of observing such interference between the spatial and numerical dimensions consists in eliciting a bias in size judgment through the mere perception of irrelevant numerical stimuli. In such experimental context though, two questions remain open. First, it is still unknown whether the direction of the bias is related to the magnitude of the number presented, or to their position in an ordinal sequence, and thus could be elicited by other non-numerical ordinal sequences such as letters of the alphabet. Second, it is still unclear whether the observed interactions generalize to other continuous dimension of magnitude such as brightness. In the study reported here, both letters and numbers were used in a size- and a brightness-reproduction task. We observed a dissociation between the two types of stimuli when reproducing size, the illusion being elicited solely by numbers. When reproducing brightness, however, neither the letters nor the numbers elicited a bias. These findings suggest that, while only numerical magnitude, and not letters, elicits a bias in size perception, the concurrent processing of magnitude and brightness does not bring about the same illusion, supporting the idea of a relative independence in the processing of these two dimensions.

Keywords: brightness perception; cognitive Illusion; magnitude system; numerical cognition.