An undeniable interplay: Both numerosity and visual features affect estimation of non-symbolic stimuli

Cognition. 2022 May;222:104944. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2021.104944. Epub 2022 Jan 28.


Converging lines of evidence suggest that the numerical abilities in Humans are rooted in the approximate number system (ANS): an innate, non-verbal mechanism that enables to estimate the numerosity of a set of items with little effort. Nevertheless, the high correlation between visual features and numerosity in the natural environment always constituted a relevant methodological problem that gathered growing concern throughout the years. This issue led some researchers to cast doubts on the existence of a system able to process numerical information independently from the influence of visual features. In the present study, we sought to shed light on the interplay between numerosity and visual features. To this aim, we implemented a non-symbolic estimation task which included a calibration phase. After performing a pre-calibration block, participants were presented with the calibration image for 20 s, and they were divided in three groups, according to the calibration stimulus they attended to: the three calibration stimuli contained the same number of items (30), but were characterized by a different amount of visual features. Results showed that performance was affected by numerosity and visual features in both phases of the experiment. However, calibration increased the weight of numerosity on performance while decreasing the weight of visual features. These results are hard to be reconciled with theories that attempt to explain human performance in non-symbolic number processing without taking into account both numerical and non-numerical aspects of the stimuli.

Keywords: Approximate Number System; Calibration; Estimation task; Numerical cognition; Visual features.

MeSH terms

  • Environment*
  • Humans