Number Trumps Area for 7-Month-Old Infants

post by Bruce W. Lee (bruce-lee) · 2024-02-09T04:58:51.344Z · LW · GW · 0 comments

This is a link post for https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23647413/

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The study conducted by Libertus, Starr, and Brannon (2014) investigates the cognitive abilities of 7-month-old infants in distinguishing between numerical changes and changes in cumulative surface area. This offers insights into the ongoing debate about whether humans represent numbers abstractly and whether perceptual features like cumulative surface area or contour length are more readily extracted from the external environment than numerical information.

This study reveals that 7-month-old infants display a higher sensitivity to changes in number than to changes in the cumulative area when each variable is tested independently. Furthermore, when numerical and area changes are directly compared, infants show a preference for numerical changes over area changes. These findings strongly suggest that number is a more salient dimension for young infants than cumulative surface area and that infants' number discrimination abilities are more finely tuned than their abilities to discriminate based on cumulative surface area.

It seems important to me that we understand the background of this research, which is rooted in a longstanding debate regarding the primary focus of infants and young children's attention—whether it is the numerosity of a set of items or the cumulative contour length or surface area (Mix, Huttenlocher, & Levine, 2002; Piaget, 1952). Previous studies have suggested that infants might only be sensitive to changes in contour length or area but not to numerical changes, leading to the hypothesis that a general sense of amount develops before a sense of number (Clearfield & Mix, 1999, 2001; Feigenson, Carey, & Spelke, 2002).

Contrarily, Cordes, and Brannon (2009) demonstrated that infants could extract both numerical and nonnumerical information from sets of items, showing a preference for numerical information over cumulative area for larger set sizes. This was evidenced by 6-month-old infants' ability to discriminate between 7 and 21 circles (a 1:3 number ratio) while failing to discriminate the same ratio in cumulative surface area, requiring a larger 1:4 ratio change in area for successful discrimination (Cordes & Brannon, 2008).

The current study employed a change detection paradigm to directly assess infants' sensitivity to changes in numerosity and area. Participants were 96 7-month-old infants, randomly assigned to one of six conditions, exploring their reactions to streams of images showing changes in either cumulative surface area while holding the number constant or vice versa. The findings replicated and extended previous results by Cordes and Brannon (2008), showing a clear preference for numerical changes over area changes when these variables competed for infants' attention.

Though rather unclear, this research seems to suggest the notion that cumulative surface area is more easily extracted by infants than numerical information but also supports the idea that number is a more salient dimension for infants. The study's outcomes imply that infants' numerical discrimination is more refined than their ability to discriminate based on the cumulative surface area, contributing valuable insights into the development of numerical cognition in infancy.

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