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Resources underlying visuo-spatial working memory enable veridical large numerosity perception

Castaldi E., Piazza M., Eger E.

Humans can quickly approximate how many objects are in a visual image, but no clear consensus has been achieved on the cognitive resources underlying this ability. Previous work has lent support to the notion that mechanisms which explicitly represent the locations of multiple objects in the visual scene within a mental map are critical for both visuo-spatial working memory and enumeration (at least for relatively small numbers of items). Regarding the cognitive underpinnings of large numerosity perception, an issue currently subject to much controversy is why numerosity estimates are often non-veridical (i.e., susceptible to biases from non-numerical quantities). Such biases have been found to be particularly pronounced in individuals with developmental dyscalculia (DD), a learning disability affecting the acquisition of arithmetic skills. Motivated by findings showing that DD individuals are also often impaired in visuo-spatial working memory, we hypothesized that resources supporting this type of working memory, which allow for the simultaneous identification of multiple objects, might also be critical for precise and unbiased perception of larger numerosities. We therefore tested whether loading working memory of healthy adult participants during discrimination of large numerosities would lead to increased interference from non-numerical quantities. Participants performed a numerosity discrimination task on multi-item arrays in which numerical and non-numerical stimulus dimensions varied congruently or incongruently relative to each other, either in isolation or in the context of a concurrent visuo-spatial or verbal working memory task. During performance of the visuo-spatial, but not verbal, working memory task, precision in numerosity discrimination decreased, participants’ choices became strongly biased by item size, and the strength of this bias correlated with measures of arithmetical skills. Moreover, the interference between numerosity and working memory tasks was bidirectional, with number discrimination impacting visuo-spatial (but not verbal) performance. Overall, these results suggest that representing visual numerosity in a way that is unbiased by non-numerical quantities relies on processes which explicitly segregate/identify the locations of multiple objects that are shared with visuo-spatial (but not verbal) working memory. This shared resource may potentially be impaired in DD, explaining the observed co-occurrence of working memory and numerosity discrimination deficits in this clinical population.

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