Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Coordinated studies of adults, infants, and nonhuman animals provide evidence for two systems of nonverbal number representation: a “parallel individuation” system that represents individual items and a “numerical magnitude” system that represents the approximate cardinal value of a group. However, there is considerable debate about the nature and functions of these systems, due largely to the fact that some studies show a dissociation between small (1–3) and large (>3) number representation, whereas others do not. Using event-related potentials, we show that it is possible to determine which system will represent the numerical value of a small number set (1–3 items) by manipulating spatial attention. Specifically, when attention can select individual objects, an early brain response (N1) scales with the cardinal value of the display, the signature of parallel individuation. In contrast, when attention cannot select individual objects or is occupied by another task, a later brain response (P2p) scales with ratio, the signature of the approximate numerical magnitude system. These results provide neural evidence that small numbers can be represented as approximate numerical magnitudes. Further, they empirically demonstrate the importance of early attentional processes to number representation by showing that the way in which attention disperses across a scene determines which numerical system will deploy in a given context.