Can responses to basic non-numerical visual features explain neural numerosity responses?

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Humans and many animals can distinguish between stimuli that differ in numerosity, the number of objects in a set. Human and macaque parietal lobes contain neurons that respond to changes in stimulus numerosity. However, basic non-numerical visual features can affect neural responses to and perception of numerosity, and visual features often co-vary with numerosity. Therefore, it is debated whether numerosity or co-varying low-level visual features underlie neural and behavioral responses to numerosity. To test the hypothesis that non-numerical visual features underlie neural numerosity responses in a human parietal numerosity map, we analyze responses to a group of numerosity stimulus configurations that have the same numerosity progression but vary considerably in their non-numerical visual features. Using ultra-high-field (7T) fMRI, we measure responses to these stimulus configurations in an area of posterior parietal cortex whose responses are believed to reflect numerosity-selective activity. We describe an fMRI analysis method to distinguish between alternative models of neural response functions, following a population receptive field (pRF) modeling approach. For each stimulus configuration, we first quantify the relationships between numerosity and several non-numerical visual features that have been proposed to underlie performance in numerosity discrimination tasks. We then determine how well responses to these non-numerical visual features predict the observed fMRI responses, and compare this to the predictions of responses to numerosity. We demonstrate that a numerosity response model predicts observed responses more accurately than models of responses to simple non-numerical visual features. As such, neural responses in cognitive processing need not reflect simpler properties of early sensory inputs.

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