Are numbers, size and brightness equally efficient in orienting visual attention? Evidence from an eye-tracking study

PLoS One. 2014 Jun 16;9(6):e99499. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0099499. eCollection 2014.


A number of studies have shown strong relations between numbers and oriented spatial codes. For example, perceiving numbers causes spatial shifts of attention depending upon numbers' magnitude, in a way suggestive of a spatially oriented, mental representation of numbers. Here, we investigated whether this phenomenon extends to non-symbolic numbers, as well as to the processing of the continuous dimensions of size and brightness, exploring whether different quantitative dimensions are equally mapped onto space. After a numerical (symbolic Arabic digits or non-symbolic arrays of dots; Experiment 1) or a non-numerical cue (shapes of different size or brightness level; Experiment 2) was presented, participants' saccadic response to a target that could appear either on the left or the right side of the screen was registered using an automated eye-tracker system. Experiment 1 showed that, both in the case of Arabic digits and dot arrays, right targets were detected faster when preceded by large numbers, and left targets were detected faster when preceded by small numbers. Participants in Experiment 2 were faster at detecting right targets when cued by large-sized shapes and left targets when cued by small-sized shapes, whereas brightness cues did not modulate the detection of peripheral targets. These findings indicate that looking at a symbolic or a non-symbolic number induces attentional shifts to a peripheral region of space that is congruent with the numbers' relative position on a mental number line, and that a similar shift in visual attention is induced by looking at shapes of different size. More specifically, results suggest that, while the dimensions of number and size spontaneously map onto an oriented space, the dimension of brightness seems to be independent at a certain level of magnitude elaboration from the dimensions of spatial extent and number, indicating that not all continuous dimensions are equally mapped onto space.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Cues
  • Female
  • Fixation, Ocular / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mathematics
  • Middle Aged
  • Models, Psychological
  • Photic Stimulation*
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Space Perception
  • Symbolism
  • Young Adult

Grants and funding

This research was supported by a grant from the University of Milano-Bicocca to the last author, MDdH. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.