Tactile numerosity is coded in external space

Cortex. 2021 Jan:134:43-51. doi: 10.1016/j.cortex.2020.10.008. Epub 2020 Nov 1.


Humans, and several non-human species, possess the ability to make approximate but reliable estimates of the number of objects around them. Alike other perceptual features, numerosity perception is susceptible to adaptation: exposure to a high number of items causes underestimation of the numerosity of a subsequent set of items, and vice versa. Several studies have investigated adaptation in the auditory and visual modality, whereby stimuli are preferentially encoded in an external coordinate system. As tactile stimuli are primarily coded in an internal (body-centered) reference frame, here we ask whether tactile numerosity adaptation operates based on internal or external spatial coordinates as it occurs in vision or audition. Twenty participants performed an adaptation task with their right hand located either in the right (uncrossed) or left (crossed) hemispace, in order for the two hands to occupy either two completely different positions, or the same position in space, respectively. Tactile adaptor and test stimuli were passively delivered either to the same (adapted) or different (non-adapted) hands. Our results show a clear signature of tactile numerosity adaptation aftereffects with a pattern of over- and under-estimation according to the adaptation rate (low and high, respectively). In the uncrossed position, we observed stronger adaptation effects when adaptor and test stimuli were delivered to the "adapted" hand. However, when both hands were aligned in the same spatial position (crossed condition), the magnitude of adaptation was similar irrespective of which hand received adaptor and test stimuli. These results demonstrate that numerosity information is automatically coded in external coordinates even in the tactile modality, suggesting that such a spatial reference frame is an intrinsic property of numerosity processing irrespective of the sensory modality.

Keywords: Adaptation; Number sense; Numerosity perception; Reference frame; Spatial selectivity; Tactile perception.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological
  • Auditory Perception
  • Hand
  • Space Perception
  • Touch Perception*
  • Touch*