Counting at a glance

Brain imaging reveals how humans estimate numbers from visual input – the earliest numerical skill.
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Chinese abacus. Different kinds of abaci have been used throughout the world to intuitively count and do calculations. Image credit: Public domain

Numbers and the ability to count and calculate are an essential part of human culture. They are part of everyday life, featuring in calendars, computers or the weekly shop, but also in some of humanity’s biggest achievements: without them the pyramids or space travel would not exist. A precursor of sophisticated mathematical skill could reside in a simpler mental ability: the capacity to assess numerical quantities at a glance. This ‘number sense’ appears in humans in early childhood and it is also present in other animals, but it is still poorly understood.

Brain imaging techniques have identified the parts of the brain that are active when perceiving numbers or making calculations. As techniques have advanced, it has become possible to resolve fine differences in brain activity that occur when people switch their attention between different visual tasks. But how exactly does the human brain process visual information to make sense of numbers? One theory suggests that humans use visual cues, such as the size of a group of objects or how densely packed objects are, to estimate numbers. On the other hand, it is also possible that humans can sense number directly, without reference to other properties of the group being observed.

Castaldi et al. presented twenty adult volunteers with groups of dots and asked them to focus either on the number of dots or on the size of the dots during a brain scan. This approach allowed the separation of brain signals specific to number from signals corresponding to other visual cues, such as size or density of the group. The experiment revealed that brain activity changed depending on the number of dots displayed. The signal related to number became stronger when people focused on the number of dots, while signals related to other properties of the group remained unchanged. Moreover, brain signals for number were observed at the very early stages of visual processing, in the parts of the brain that receive input from the eyes first.

These results suggest that the human visual system perceives number directly, and not by processing information about the size or density of a group of objects. This finding provides insights into how human brains encode numbers, which could be important to understand disorders where number sense can be impaired leading to difficulties learning math and operating with numbers.