Neural measures reveal a fixed item limit in subitizing

E. Ester, T. Drew, E. Vogel, E. Awh
2012 Journal of Vision  
For centuries, it has been known that humans can rapidly and accurately enumerate small sets of items, a process referred to as subitizing. However, there is still active debate regarding the mechanisms that mediate this ability. For example, some have argued that subitizing reflects the operation of a fixed-capacity individuation mechanism that enables concurrent access to a small number of items. However, others have argued that subitizing reflects the operation of a continuous numerical
more » ... uous numerical estimation mechanism whose precision varies with numerosity in a manner consistent with Weber's law. Critically, quantitative models based on either of these predictions can provide a reasonable description of subitizing performance, making it difficult to discriminate between these alternatives solely on the basis of subjects' behavioral performance. Here, we attempted to discriminate between fixed-capacity and continuous estimation models of subitizing using neural measures. In two experiments, we recorded EEGs while subjects performed a demanding subitizing task and examined set-size-dependent changes in a neurophysiological marker of visual selection (the N2pc event-related potential component) evoked by an array of to-be-enumerated items. In both experiments, N2pc amplitudes increased monotonically within the subitizing range before reaching an asymptotic limit at approximately three items. Moreover, inter-participant differences in the location of this asymptote were strongly predictive of behavioral estimates of subitizing span derived from a fixed-capacity model. Thus, neural activity linked with subitizing ability shows evidence of an early and discrete limit in the number of items that can be concurrently apprehended, supporting a fixed-capacity model of this process.
doi:10.1167/12.9.945 fatcat:hjru2r2jzzesdn7ld366bsdgpm