Numerosity processing is context driven even in the subitizing range: An fMRI study

Tali Leibovich, Avishai Henik, Moti Salti

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Numerical judgments are involved in almost every aspect of our daily life. They are carried out so efficiently that they are often considered to be automatic and innate. However, numerosity of non-symbolic stimuli is highly correlated with its continuous properties (e.g., density, area), and so it is hard to determine whether numerosity and continuous properties rely on the same mechanism. Here we examined the behavioral and neuronal mechanisms underlying such judgments. We scanned subjects' hemodynamic responses to a numerosity comparison task and to a surface area comparison task. In these tasks, numerical and continuous magnitudes could be either congruent or incongruent. Behaviorally, an interaction between the order of the tasks and the relevant dimension modulated the congruency effects. Continuous magnitudes always interfered with numerosity comparison. Numerosity, on the other hand, interfered with the surface area comparison only when participants began with the numerosity task. Hemodynamic activity showed that context (induced by task order) determined the neuronal pathways in which the dimensions were processed. Starting with the numerosity task led to enhanced activity in the right hemisphere, while starting with the continuous task led to enhanced left hemisphere activity. Continuous magnitudes processing relied on activation of the frontal eye field and the post-central gyrus. Processing of numerosities, on the other hand, relied on deactivation of these areas, suggesting active suppression of the continuous dimension. Accordingly, we suggest that numerosities, even in the subitizing range, are not always processed automatically; their processing depends on context and task demands.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)137-147
Number of pages11
StatePublished - 1 Oct 2015
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme ( FP7/2007–2013 )/ERC Grant Agreement 295644 to AH.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2015.


  • Congruity effect
  • Continuous magnitudes
  • FMRI
  • Numerical cognition
  • Numerosity processing
  • Subitizing

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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