Nonsymbolic numerosity in sets with illusory-contours exploits a context-sensitive, but contrast-insensitive, visual boundary formation process

Atten Percept Psychophys. 2022 Jan;84(1):205-220. doi: 10.3758/s13414-021-02378-y. Epub 2021 Oct 17.


The visual mechanisms underlying approximate numerical representation are still intensely debated because numerosity information is often confounded with continuous sensory cues (e.g., texture density, area, convex hull). However, numerosity is underestimated when a few items are connected by illusory contours (ICs) lines without changing other physical cues, suggesting in turn that numerosity processing may rely on discrete visual input. Yet, in these previous works, ICs were generated by black-on-gray inducers producing an illusory brightness enhancement, which could represent a further continuous sensory confound. To rule out this possibility, we tested participants in a numerical discrimination task in which we manipulated the alignment of 0, 2, or 4 pairs of open/closed inducers and their contrast polarity. In Experiment 1, aligned open inducers had only one polarity (all black or all white) generating ICs lines brighter or darker than the gray background. In Experiment 2, open inducers had always opposite contrast polarity (one black and one white inducer) generating ICs without strong brightness enhancement. In Experiment 3, reverse-contrast inducers were aligned but closed with a line preventing ICs completion. Results showed that underestimation triggered by ICs lines was independent of inducer contrast polarity in both Experiment 1 and Experiment 2, whereas no underestimation was found in Experiment 3. Taken together, these results suggest that mere brightness enhancement is not the primary cause of the numerosity underestimation induced by ICs lines. Rather, a boundary formation mechanism insensitive to contrast polarity may drive the effect, providing further support to the idea that numerosity processing exploits discrete inputs.

Keywords: Approximate number system; Illusory contours; Visual illusions; Visual segmentation.

MeSH terms

  • Cues
  • Form Perception*
  • Humans
  • Illusions*