Laboratoire Psychologie de la Perception Institut Neurosciences Cognition Université Paris Descartes Centre National de Recherche Scientifique
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Dissociation between small and large numerosities in newborn infants

In the first year of life, infants possess two cognitive systems encoding numerical information: one for processing the numerosity of sets of 4 or more items, and the second for tracking up to 3 objects in parallel. While a previous study showed the former system to be already present a few hours after birth, it is unknown whether the latter system is functional at this age. Here, we adapt the auditory-visual matching paradigm that previously revealed sensitivity to large numerosities to test sensitivity to numerosities spanning the range from 2 to 12. Across studies, newborns discriminated pairs of large numerosities in a 3:1 ratio, even when the smaller numerosity was 3 (3 vs. 9). In contrast, newborn infants failed to discriminate pairs including the numerosity 2, even at the same ratio (2 vs. 6). These findings mirror the dissociation that has been reported with older infants, albeit with a discontinuity situated between numerosities 2 and 3. Two alternative explanations are compatible with our results: either newborn infants have a separate system for processing small sets, and the capacity of this system is limited to 2 objects; or newborn infants possess only one system to represent numerosities, and this system either is not functional or is extremely imprecise when it is applied to small numerosities.